A ROCKIN' RELAY!
July 13, 2017
"A joyful experience awaits you."
That was the message in the fortune cookie accompanying the order I picked up in April from a nearby Chinese restaurant, and I remember thinking, "How appropriate!"
I had just made arrangements to participate on June 24, 2017 in the Baldwin Hills Relay For Life to be held at the Yvonne B. Burke Athletic Complex, 5401 S. Fairfax, Los Angeles, as this particular Relay now includes Culver City.
Well, the cookie didn't lie.
It was quite an experience to attend the planning meetings held on several Thursdays prior to the event. These were primarily composed of team captains and committee chairs, all of whom put in a tremendous amount of time and effort to ensure that this Relay would proceed smoothly and successfully.
This was a huge, vibrant event where the energy generated was so powerful that I found it bordering on a transcendent experience. Maybe this is why people go to rock concerts, to feel part of a rapturous whole. I can only say that my senses were dazzled, my heart expanded, and this Relay rocked!
There were around forty teams, and hundreds of people turned out over the course of the day. Visualize the field dotted with tents and booths and a huge stage providing continuous entertainment, valuable information from medical professionals, and inspirational moments through talks, song and dance.
There were fun games, great music, dancing, exercise sessions, delicious food, and a wonderful sense of purpose. The Survivors Lap, Caregivers Lap, and Luminaria Lap were emotional and beautiful experiences.
It was my intention as an artist to make a visual statement about cancer's widespread impact. It worked, because as I walked laps people constantly came up to me to say they liked my hat with all the ribbons and to ask the meaning.
When I explained that these were ribbons I had lettered with the names of people my sponsors wished to honor or remember and told them the story behind the drawings on my little sandwich board, they were moved, some to the point of tears, and many hugs were exchanged.
I had joined the Green Team, and when I wasn't chilling in the team tent or walking laps, I was at the Luminaria booth decorating bags. At one point the music got so irresistible that I left the booth to gyrate with some of the customers who were waiting in line, and I'll never forget one older woman whose incredible moves were unlike anything I'd ever seen. Later, when the Luminarias circled the field and were lit up by glow sticks, it was a breathtaking sight and I could not help but feel a tremendous sense of pride that I'd been privileged to create some.
So many stories . . .
I briefly caught up with Kimberlee Smith, who is on the staff of American Cancer Society as Community Manager for Relay For Life. In 2007 she lost her mother after a ten-year battle with cancer. Her mother actually had nine different cancers that caused her death, each being one from which someone in her family had died. Kimberlee also relays for her late grandmother, who had been a longtime breast cancer survivor.
Makresha Reneau, the Event Lead, relays because "eleven years ago my life was changed forever when my Auntie-Mom, Darline Daniels and Father Howard McFashion Jr. were both taken away from our family with this horrible disease. We will not stop fighting and we will never give up. There will be a cure and we will be here to say we did it together, because God said so!"
For Carol Thompson, who has earned the nickname of Relay Mom, this is very much a family affair. I got a kick out of her son, Bobby Green, who dubbed me "the bag lady" when he saw me working in the Luminaria booth. Another son, Troy Green, who was named a Community Champion by the American Cancer Society and was heavily involved in this event, lost his wife, Kimberly, to colon cancer. And Carol's sister, Madeline Wilson, the Event Co-lead and captain of the Green Team, is a breast cancer survivor.
"It was October 2004 that Kim and I were both diagnosed," Madeline said. "I was diagnosed on Thursday, October 21, my mammogram having been on Monday, October 18, the day Kim was diagnosed with colon cancer after a series of misdiagnoses. She was the only daughter of healthy parents, neither of whom have had cancer in any form."
Madeline is a triple negative breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed at stage IIIC, and at the time that meant her risk for reoccurrence in ten years was 89%. Many of her family members have died from breast cancer and she encourages women "to not be like me and be 'too busy' to go get a mammogram. I pretty much went every year but this one year I was 'too busy' and went from 'OK' to stage IIIC."
She learned that "African American women were dying at higher rates than other ethnic groups even though we don't get cancer at higher rates. I also found out that often there are other conditions beside the cancer that many people have to deal with and sometimes it makes the struggle even harder." She urges everyone to "go to the doctor and get checked on a regular basis. It could save your life."
Troy had wanted to do something to honor Kim's memory and it turned out Madeline had just gone to a Relay planning meeting with a friend, was very enthused about it, told Troy, and the family decided to honor Kim in that fashion, subsequently becoming very involved in this Relay that has grown so greatly over the years.
I was delighted to run into a couple of survivors I'd met at previous Relays, Sherwood Kingsley and Freddie Muse Jr.
Sherwood was a familiar face from many Culver City Relays I had attended. He is a longtime Culver City resident and as a CPA knows how significant numbers can be, especially the number of those struck by cancer. He was one of those numbers, not just once but twice. In 1996 he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, followed in 1998 by cancer of the left salivary gland. A dedicated volunteer, he is very active in the American Cancer Society Action Network (www.ACSCAN.org).
At a Culver City Relay in 2009 I met Freddie, the founder/president/CEO of The Men's Cancer Network, Inc. (www.TheMensCancerNetwork.com), who is now celebrating his tenth anniversary as a survivor of prostate cancer. Following his diagnosis in January, 2017 and "wondering how this came to be, I started to talk with men everywhere. I wanted to gain more insight and understanding of this disease. I shared my feelings with my life partner, Ms. Priscilla Brown, and asked God what can I do about this.
Both God and Priscilla gave me my answer about the very same time and that was to get the men educated and share the details of this disease so that men will have a heads up about how it spreads throughout the African American communities, because we are at higher risk than any other ethnic group in this country.
I believe in God, and His word says, 'My people will perish from lack of knowledge' (Hosea 6:4) so we must get our men informed, enlightened, and educated."
These stories are but tiny specs in the vast chaotic cosmos of cancer. As one of those specs I am so thankful for events such as this. Since 1946 the American Cancer Society has invested more than $4.3 billion on cancer research and has had a hand in almost every major research breakthrough. This Relay raised just over $60,000 and, thanks to my fabulous sponsors, my total of a little over $6,000 made me the top fundraiser! Donations can continue to be made up to August 31 through the website, http://www.RelayForLife.org/BaldwinHillsCA.
As I reflect on the events of the day and the enormous amount of effort that went into its success, a Hebrew proverb comes to mind: "The heart carries the feet." And there was a lot of heart in action.