A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF RELAY

 

September 10, 2020

Cancer is bad enough and we sure didn't need a pandemic but we've got one, so how on Earth do we hold a Relay? That was indeed the question, as Relays are crowded events that generate camaraderie, closeness, and sharing.

Well, thank heaven for determination and creative thinking, a powerful combination in the fight against cancer. This year's Baldwin Hills Relay For Life, which includes the communities of Culver City, Ladera Heights, View Park, Windsor Hills, Crenshaw, and Leimert Park, will be a very different kind of Relay indeed with participants standing together in spirit but not physically.

In the interest of safety, instead of our usual Relay, a drive-through Luminaria Celebration is planned for Saturday, September 12th between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the parking lot of the Yvonne B. Burke Athletic Complex Baseball Field, 5401 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90056, between Stocker and Slauson. Participants will be required to remain in the safety of their cars as they honor and remember loved ones by driving through the parking lot. Luminaria bags will be displayed curbside. No bags will be available for purchase at the event. For health reasons, all bags will be disposed of after the event.


Luminaria bags can be ordered through the Baldwin Hills Relay For Life website, http://www.RelayForLife.org/BaldwinHillsCA, for a suggested donation of $10 each. The deadline for orders is Friday, September 4th, so that volunteers have time to decorate and personalize the bags in accordance with information buyers provide in the online order form. Since the pandemic has created a huge shortfall in funding, any additional donations are gratefully accepted and can also be made through that website.

Luminarias honor every life touched by cancer. You can dedicate them to a departed loved one, a caregiver, or someone currently battling cancer or who has overcome it. If you have any questions, would like to get involved or create a team for next year, please call Dana Wynkoop, Community Development Manager, at (310) 600-4462 or email her at dana.wynkoop@cancer.org.

Getting involved provides a great experience. The Relays I've attended as a cancer survivor have abounded in fun, friendship, entertainment, and valuable information and, most importantly, have assisted the American Cancer Society in carrying out its mission to save lives, celebrate lives, and lead the fight for a world without cancer.


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I'd like to share with you stories about some of those involved in this upcoming Relay and why they will be displaying Luminarias.

Carol Thompson, a stalwart repeat participant, is fondly known as "Relay mom." Her daughter-in-law, Kimberly, who was married to Carol's son, Troy Green, was diagnosed at age 40 with Stage IV colon cancer, which proved fatal.

"Kim was an angel," Carol said. "If anyone would go to heaven, it would be her. She cared about everyone and everyone loved her. No matter how bad she was feeling, she'd always ask how everyone else was doing. A lot of doctors and nurses came to her funeral, which is unusual, but she had made such an impact. I'm decorating her Luminaria bag with flowers and an angel. I'm also preparing a Luminaria for Fran, my 'play' daughter. She was a cancer survivor and a big part of Relay, and died of heart problems."

Carol herself was diagnosed with cancer of the tonsils and adjacent lymph nodes last year.

"I discovered a lump at the side of my face that turned out to be Stage I cancer," she said. "I told the doctor, when you go in there, if you find anything else that needs to come out, you take it out, I'll sign the releases!"

She had 35 radiation treatments and five chemo sessions, and remembers having "to lie still on a table with a big, ugly mask. I had to wear a special mouthpiece with gel for 30 minutes before bedtime so I wouldn't lose my teeth. But my thinking was I have cancer, cancer doesn't have me, so I would go in for my treatments all dressed up with heels, and go shopping afterwards!"


At past Relays Carol had a very popular table where she sold gorgeous baskets she'd prepared, with the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. This year she is considering doing something similar, perhaps in October at a yard sale, with proceeds again being donated, "but everyone will have to wear a mask."

Carol's sister, Madeline Wilson, is Team Captain of the Green Team, which kindly accepted me as a member when Relays ceased in Culver City due to location issues and Culver City became part of the Baldwin Hills event. She is a triple negative breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed as Stage IIIC in 2004, which at that time meant her risk for recurrence 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 'okay' to Stage IIIC."

Madeline will have quite a few Luminaria bags on display.

"I do some Luminarias each year, one for my half-sister, my many cousins, my aunt, my women's group that I was in (where 8 of 24 African American women had breast cancer), my friends, my breast cancer support group, and that doesn't even begin to cover all the people I know that have had cancer and/or died from cancer," she said.

Mel Jackson has "been involved with Relay for several decades, and approximately the last 15 years with Baldwin Hills. I was very impressed with the Green family's efforts to make this an uplifting community event." Having seen Troy (a former Event Lead), Madeline, and Carol in action, I can testify to that.

"We support Relay as a family," Mel added. "We're lifers!"

His family, including his wife's side, has been beset by a variety of cancers, and some family members, including his dad, have been lost to this disease. Ironically, Mel had been volunteering for many years and then, eight years ago, he too was diagnosed with cancer.

Troy offered some historical perspective by informing me that "Mel was the first Team Captain of Team Omega. Under his leadership, the team consistently challenged Mighty Trinity for the second highest fundraising team. Mel was in the top three fundraisers and is currently our #1, and his family was the main reason the Omegas were so successful. Additionally, they brought family members from around the state, kept the event lively throughout the night, and outgrew the space designated for Team Omega. Shortly after, the family wanted their own team (Team Jackson) to support 'Uncle Mel' and other family members affected by cancer."

He lauded Mel for having done "a great job mentoring William Rochester, the current leader of Team Omega, which is still a top fundraiser. The fact that Team Omega and Team Jackson were consistently among the top teams is a testament to Mel Jackson's leadership. Mel is also a pillar with Omega Psi Phi fraternity, where I have personally seen his youth mentoring and other community service contributions."

Mel advised me that he has returned to Team Omega this year since Team Jackson is on leave. Various circumstances, including the pandemic, played a part in that decision as some family members are healthcare workers. However, he and his family are dedicated to vanquishing cancer and "there will be 32 Luminaria bags from the Jackson family this year."

Steve Bagby Sr. has been active in the Baldwin Hills Relay for several years. "I got involved because I knew Madeline and appreciated her activism and enthusiasm," he said.

Sadly, he too has lost several family members and close friends to cancer over the years, and is arranging for 16 Luminarias to honor their memory. In 2013 he was himself diagnosed with this disease ("so far, so good") that he emphatically described as "insidious. Cancer doesn't discriminate on the basis of age, social status, gender, or ethnicity. It's equal opportunity. But cancer can be defeated, and it is incumbent upon us to do everything within our means and power to do so."


Steve's "equal opportunity" comment highlights the reality that everyone is at risk where this disease is concerned. It also triggered a memory of a young woman I met years ago after my own diagnosis. She was in her early 20s, normal vitals, slim, and seemingly had everything going for her from a health perspective. She was a runner, a vegetarian, had a happy marriage, a job she loved, and no family history of cancer. Well, you guessed it. We met in the waiting room of my oncologist's office, exchanged stories, and I learned she had breast cancer. I remember her crying and repeating, "How could this happen to me?"

As for my story, in 1991 I felt a lump in my breast a couple months after my annual mammogram, which had appeared to be okay. Dense tissue had hidden the cancer. I had a mastectomy on Nov. 11, 1991, followed by several weeks of radiation and a few years of Tamoxifen, an oral medication. A year following surgery I took the training to become a Reach to Recovery volunteer in order to provide peer support to women newly diagnosed with breast cancer, an activity I find immensely gratifying.

When I attend Relays I'm pretty visible with my wide-brimmed hat bedecked with ribbons on which I've inked the names of those whom my sponsors wish to honor, plus I wear a mini sandwich board bearing portraits I drew of Judy Glazer and Mary ("Toni") Tyrer, two very dear friends who died a few years ago and who will be represented in my group of Luminarias.

Judy and I used to work together and remained close after I retired in 2001. Shortly thereafter she and her family moved to Arroyo Grande. Not long after that she developed breast cancer and, with a coworker, created a Relay team called ChemoKickers, to which she was devoted. In early 2010 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and continued to earnestly fundraise for her June 2010 Relay. I went up that weekend to walk with her team, as I had promised to do, wearing the team T-shirt she had given me on one of my previous visits. After I returned from Relay I sat by her bed to report the events of the day. I know she understood, even though she was comatose. She died later that evening.

Toni was a wonderful friend for 50 years, until her death on her 100th birthday in 2016. When I told her of my cancer diagnosis, she was the one who insisted I call the American Cancer Society because "they will help you." She was so right. After my mastectomy she took it upon herself to become my scrupulous caregiver, and was extraordinarily helpful in facilitating my recovery. For example, a number of lymph nodes had been removed and there were certain exercises I had to do to keep my shoulder from freezing. Since the movements were painful Toni decided to stand facing me, concurrently doing them, and that mirroring process made it so much easier. She was encouraging, totally supportive, and a loyal sponsor in every cancer walk I did.

This year has certainly exemplified an old saying: "The only constant is change." It is apparent in Relay and in so many facets of our lives. Change can be scary and upsetting, but it can also be a very good thing, as in the wonderful changes the American Cancer Society has brought about through its array of services and lifesaving research. Do check out http://www.cancer.org for further information. And the cancer information helpline, 1(800) 227-2345, where you can speak with a cancer information specialist 24/7, has been very valuable to me.

I fervently hope and pray that we all survive the pandemic and are in good shape next year so that we can perhaps resume our pre-COVID routines. Nothing would thrill me more than to sashay around the track in celebration of my 30th (!) anniversary as a survivor, hopefully accompanied by the gracious and inspiring people cited in this article, and wearing my usual Relay garb as above described. That regalia prompted someone at a previous Relay to comment that I looked like a walking Luminaria, which really tickled me.


When I was a child in the '40s a cancer diagnosis was pretty much an automatic death sentence. We never even referred to it by name. Now, thanks to the $4.9 billion the American Cancer Society has invested in research since 1946, the 915,000 screenings it has contributed to underserved communities since 2011, and the 2.9 million cancer deaths averted since 1991 and currently estimated at 500 fewer cancer deaths each day, there is hope.

And that is why, no matter what, we continue to Relay however we can in order to remember, to honor, to celebrate life and progress, and to keep that hope alive.

Photo of Sandra Coopersmith taken at a Relay in Culver City several years ago by The Pod Photography, showing her drawing of Judy Glazer

 

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