Newlyweds John and Misty Merlau of Greenback know firsthand the importance of Relay for Life.
Without it, John might not be alive.
During the Blount County Relay for Life Survivors Ceremony on Friday night, May 29, both wore medals and proudly took their place on the steps of Maryville College’s Proffitt Hall to be a part of the survivors’ photo.
Each was diagnosed with cancer just a few months apart in 2008. John was diagnosed in February, and Misty was diagnosed in June. John was thankful for the money raised by Relay for Life to pay for research.
“Five years ago, they would have just sent me home. Thanks to research, I was given a new drug that killed the tumor,” he said.
Misty said they’ve learned to depend on one another even more because each was diagnosed with cancer. “I take care of him on my good weeks, and he takes care of me on his good weeks,” she said.
On May 29 more than 111 teams converged on the Maryville College campus to walk throughout the night to remember the victims of cancer, celebrate those who’ve beaten it and fight back by raising money for cancer research.
While each team had members who raised money, vendors also sold everything from barbecue to back rubs to help bring in even more funds, all to support the American Cancer Society. The 2008 Blount County Relay for Life chair Dave Bennett said $302,000 was raised, and the effort continues through August 31.
Standing before those who had stayed all night at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, Bennett thanked the teams and congratulated them on their hard work.
“As of 6 a.m., we have raised more than $302,000,” he said. “Absolutely unbelievable! What a dedicated group of workers and team members!”
Bennett said 5,000 communities in 19 countries do Relay for Life events, and Blount County’s Relay campaign is part of the overall effort to fund cancer research. “One day we’ll beat this, and it’s because of you,” he said.
Bennett said the nationwide Relay efforts have paid off throughout the years. “We have contributed to a 14 percent decrease in the cancer death rate since the early 1990s,” he said. “We’ve connected cancer patients with 64,000 treatment options available that before the 1990s weren’t there. It’s humbling to think about the difference we’ve made in the last 20 years.”
Tim and Elizabeth Self, chairs of the 2010 Relay for Life, were introduced to the crowd. Tim Self said that while everyone was there to celebrate the survivors, they are also dedicated to fighting cancer.
“Tonight, we say, ‘Cancer, you’re not welcome in Blount County. We’re doing to fight against you, and we’re going to beat you,’” he said.
Tim Self said the evening couldn’t have happened without hundreds of volunteers. “They’ve worked hard to make sure it’s a wonderful event,” he said.
During the Survivors Ceremony, cancer survivors’ names and the number of birthdays they’ve celebrated since being diagnosed were read. Each was presented with a medal. After gathering for a group photograph, the survivors walked the first lap around the track. On lap two, participants, caregivers and other volunteers fell in with them and the walk that lasted until 6 a.m. began.
Walkers from each team took turns making laps. “Cancer never sleeps, so we’re not going to sleep tonight either, in honor of you,” Bennett said.
Fred Forster, president and CEO of the Blount Chamber Partnership, said Relay for Life is essential. “It’s important for everyone to get together and decide we’re going to beat cancer,” he said. “Let’s work as a team.”
Nancy-Caroline Connell said she was four years from her diagnosis and thanked those who have supported her. “You don’t ever walk through this alone,” she said. “It’s not something that you would choose. It’s not easy, but you’re not alone.”
Shirley Henry was diagnosed 11 years ago and ended up having a kidney removed. This was only the second time she had attended a Relay event. “I knew this was important, but I didn’t know it was so much fun,” she said.
Les Phillips said he was diagnosed two years ago and said he walked in Relay so his own children would one day not have to suffer from cancer. “I don’t want them to have to go through what I went through,” he said.
Holly Keeble, a 17-year-old Heritage High School senior, was on hand with her family. They were all clad in special black T-shirts she and her family designed to celebrate the fight her grandmother Connie Keeble has waged with cancer. “She is awesome,” Holly Keeble said of her grandmother. “Her walk with God helped her get through her cancer.”
Connie Keeble said she was surprised when she saw her family wearing the special shirts. “Gracious, it was exciting. I cried when I saw them with their shirts on,” she said. “It’s very touching.”
Marion Westerling, senior development representative with the Blount County chapter of the American Cancer Society, said this is her 12th year working with Relay for Life. “Watching it grow from eight teams participating and two teams staying all night to all these people is inspiring. Just look at the large number of survivors! It grows every year, and that makes me feel I’ve done something worthwhile,” she said.
Cancer survivor Sylvia Porter said Relay for Life is important because of how pervasive cancer is. “So many people are affected by cancer,” she said. “It touches every family.”