By Brad Hicks
Emblazoned on the back of Mari Fanning’s purple shirt was the word “surviving.”
Fourteen years and eight months ago, Fanning was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was only a matter of months before this she participated in her first Relay For Life.
Fanning recalled that as she made her first lap around the track at Unicoi County High School around 15 years ago, she felt sorrow but also a sense of hope.
“It meant so much to me and, it’s hard to put in words, but it proved to me I was alive,” Fanning said. “I walked around this track and I read the names on these luminaries and realized that so many of those people are no longer with us. And I cried all the way around the track the first time, and the second time, and the third time, because I realized if they weren’t doing so much cancer research, I probably wouldn’t be there and get to walk around that track and no matter how sick I am or how bad I feel, I’m here, even if it’s just for this lap.”
It was for this reason that Fanning could again be found on Saturday, Sept. 17, among the sea of purple shirts donned by survivors and caregivers, making the lap around the UCHS track to fight back against cancer.
The 2016 Unicoi County Relay For Life was held from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday. The event benefits the American Cancer Society.
Renea Jones-Rogers, chair of the 2016 Unicoi County Relay For Life, said raising funds for cancer research is vital as everyone will at some point be touched by the disease, whether it’s learning of a friend or family member’s diagnosis or their own.
“Cancer impacts everybody in different ways,” Jones-Rogers said. “We’ve come such a long way from where we were when Relay For Life here in Unicoi County first started with Emma Smith. There wasn’t a lot of the cures there are now, and those treatment plans and medicines that have cured people were developed because of research dollars from the American Cancer Society.
“So I think that’s why (the Relay For Life) is important for the future, for the future of people who battle cancer, to keep on raising those dollars and keep on doing research to provide more effective treatment plans and, ultimately, cure more people so that they have more birthdays.”
Near the end of Saturday’s event, Jones-Rogers announced that the 2016 Unicoi County Relay For Life has thus far raised more than $75,000 for the ACS.
But the Relay For Life is not just about fundraising. Like Fanning, Jones-Rogers said it is an opportunity to honor the survivors and remember those lost to cancer. And, like most others, Jones-Rogers has been directly impacted by cancer. The year after she participated in her first Relay For Life, her cousin was diagnosed. Several years later, her son Nick Rogers was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins T-Cell Lymphoma.
Rogers gave the survivor’s speech at Saturday’s Relay, recounting his diagnosis and the support he quickly received. The 23-year-old said his diagnosis came when he was in the 8th grade after a middle school baseball game. After the thirsty Rogers rose out of his bed to get some water, his mother noticed his neck had become very swollen.
He received his diagnosis around a week later.
“I can’t really tell you a lot about what happened after that,” Rogers said. “I left the room. It was a lot for a kid to take, but my parents stayed in there and were given my prognosis and the treatment plan that I was going to be following.”
Rogers spent the next few weeks in the hospital, undergoing his first round of chemotherapy and other treatments. And he said family, friends and cancer survivors from Unicoi County turned out “in force” to visit him and offer their support.
“I don’t know how I could’ve done it without everybody that showed up throughout this community and without Relay,” Rogers said. “Just the support that they show survivors, it’s unbelievable. And I’m really glad that I get the opportunity to participate in this every year and to get to Relay and fight back against cancer.”
More than 20 teams registered for the Unicoi County Relay For Life to help raise money for the ACS, and around 120 cancer survivors registered for the Survivor Luncheon held about a month ago.
Jones-Rogers said many of those who form the teams do so for personal reasons. That certainly applies to Tammy Callahan, who captained the Sherry’s Angels team.
Callahan’s mother, Sherry Tilson, was diagnosed with sarcoma lung cancer in 2011 and eventually succumbed to the disease. Tilson got to participate in the Relay For Life one year as a survivor, and the Sherry’s Angels team was originally established by her co-workers, with her family taking over the team in 2013.
“She was an avid supporter of anyone with illnesses, especially those with cancer,” Callahan said of her mother, “and we just wanted to continue uplifting hope and supporting them.”
The Sherry’s Angels team sold balloon pets and provided dove balloons. Callahan said the concept behind the balloons is to “uplift hope.”
“Typically what we say is we support the fighters, admire the survivors, honor the taken and never give up hope,” Callahan said.
Along with the laps made by survivors, caregivers and Relay teams, there was also music, human foosball and other events to raise money for ACS. A luminaria ceremony was held near the end of Saturday’s festivities to honor both the survivors and those claimed by cancer.
As the sun began to set, lights attached to a large sign reading “Hope” were lit.
Fanning said the Relay For Life gives one an understanding of how many people are no longer here, but the event also gives a picture of how many may not be if not for the funding provided for cancer research.
“When the new survivors see the ones of us that have got years on us, it gives them hope, too,” Fanning said.
Jones-Rogers said fundraising efforts will continue through the remainder of the year. “If you didn’t get a chance to donate you still have time,” she said.