Cancer survivors led by Dawn Rawley, center, in blue, make the first lap around the field in Largo Central Park at the 2014 Relay for Life fundraiser for cancer research May 30.
LARGO – None of the dozens of participants at the Relay for Life fundraiser had walked even a lap through Largo Central Park May 30 before they started sweating.
It promised to be a long, hot night, yet there were smiles all around. They were the smiles of people united in a cause, and smiles brought about by the idea that their foe, cancer, might someday be beaten by their efforts.
The Relay went from 6 p.m. on Friday, May 30 to 6 a.m. on Saturday, May 31. There were 15 teams entered and the rule was simple, one member of each team had to be on the track at all times. Together, the teams raised $38,700 for cancer research – going above their goal of $35,000.
Becky Ciarcia of Tampa, a cancer survivor, said the more people who know about Relay for Life the better.
“Education and research are the only ways we’re going to kick this,” she said. “I’m going to graduate as a nurse next March, and I’ll be continuing the fight in that capacity. For sure, I’ll be back here again.”
Ciarcia, who is attending Fortis College in Largo, said there were six members of her family at the event. Cancer is no stranger to them.
“In our family of six, there are six instances of cancer,” she said. “My dad has had a recurrence but all the rest of us are in remission. Everybody has a different journey when it comes to cancer.”
Largo event organizer Dawn Rawley, 33, has had quite a journey with cancer. She shared it with the crowd at the event.
“I was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, and it was a long battle,” she said. “I had six months of chemo and a year of specialized treatment, and then I was done.”
That would not have been the case a few years earlier when her type of leukemia had only a 5 percent survival rate five years after diagnosis and 0 percent after 10 years.
“Basically, nobody survived that type of cancer. Yet when I got it, my doctor told me that it was the best type of cancer to get. Research developments had put the survival rate at over 90 percent. I got the cancer that had the cure,” she said.
It was that type of story that Largo High School teacher Kathryn Olidero was pleased that her students could hear. She was at the event with members of the school’s Spanish Honor Society Club. They were all decked out in their red T-shirts and ready to walk for the cure.
“We’re called the Avengers, or Los Vengadores,” she said. “The club has been coming to the Relay for the past eight years, and I’m happy that it is here in this new location so more people will be exposed to it.”
Club president Emilie Davis has been a regular participant in the Relay, and for good reason.
“I have had a number of family members and friends who have been stricken with cancer,” she said. “So this tugs on me as a personal cause.”
Davis is graduating this year and has moved to Clearwater from Largo, but said she’ll be back next year as a student from St. Petersburg College.
Rawley’s struggles living with cancer are similar to many who have been afflicted with the disease. Much of her story involves getting on with life as much as fighting the disease.
“I was 24 years old when I was diagnosed. My husband, Jason, had quit his job at the time because he wanted to write a book. We had saved enough money for him to be able to do that. Once I was diagnosed, he had to get his job back. Instead of writing a book, he was making sure his family was safe at home and holding my head up while I threw up after treatments,” she said.
Rawley said her husband, like so many other caregivers of cancer patients, had something else to contend with during the fight against the disease.
“Caregivers get the brunt of your anger as you recover,” she said. “I’ve seen both sides of it. There is a lot of pain going through cancer, and there is nowhere to express it except for the people around you. I tell other cancer patients who ask me for advice to be aware of that. I tell them it will stop, and the intensity of the treatment will subside.”
Another important piece of advice Rawley said is not to try to go it alone.
“Surround yourself with people who are positive and who can help you get through it. Always accept the help that people offer you even if you don’t need it,” she said. “You can’t do everything yourself, you can’t be Superwoman or Superguy if you are in (too much) pain express it. The people around you will forgive you for whatever you say if they truly love you.”
More than 5,000 Relay for Life events are held every year in over 20 countries. The American Cancer Society is the organizing body in the United States.
Rawley and her committee have already begun plans for next year’s Largo event. Anyone who would like to participate or find out more information can join the wrap-up party Tuesday, June 10, 5:30 p.m., at Abe’s Restaurant, 1250 S. Missouri Ave. in Clearwater.