Relay for Life: Surviving Strong

By Holly Kestenis Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Ask anyone if they know of someone with cancer and the answer will most likely be “yes.” Each year worldwide about 14 million people learn they have some form of cancer, with more than half of them dying from the disease.

So as a way to fight back and to raise money for research, American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life was born. It all started with one man, Dr. Gordon Klatt who battled stomach cancer. He was one man running on a track and his efforts turned into a global sensation as people all over the world now participate in the event.

Lakewood High School graciously donated their track and facilities for the 12-hour event. Cancer survivors and their supporters showed they believe in themselves and the search for a cure by tirelessly taking to the concrete, one lap after another. Even 64 players from Lakewood’s football team volunteered for the cause from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Avis Carter, event lead for south St. Petersburg Relay for Life revved up the crowd. “Any survivors in the house,” she asked as her voice boomed. “I want to recognize the survivors first thing.”

The cause is near and dear to her heart having witnessed her own father-in-law along with a dear friend battle the deadly disease.

“This is why I relay,” said Carter.

The “C” word no one ever wants to hear they have; being diagnosed with the disease can cause lives to break apart as families struggle with the medical process that follows. The necessary surgeries, the chemotherapy, radiation treatments and the drugs all in an effort to eradicate the invader that promises to take away family, friends and self.

A dreary disposition for sure. But cancer survivors have one thing that newly diagnosed patients tend to lose, at least at first – hope. Each one thankful for their life and ultimately positive about their journey. Sure they admit in hindsight the cure was bad, but they have a sense of peace knowing they came out a winner. So they walk to bring hope to those who have none, to help those still struggling to come out on top.

Linda Pondexter-Gidron was diagnosed with colon cancer about three years ago on Valentine’s Day. She had no chemo or radiation, but lost about a foot of her colon. “I am happy and glad today,” she said. “I am cancer free.”

Although it’s been eight years since Cheryl Clinton was diagnosed and cleared of the disease, she still can remember when she found out. Just nine weeks before her wedding day, Clinton was shattered, but remained optimistic and went on with her plans to marry. But it was on her honeymoon, after her treatments that she can never forget.

“My hair fell out on my honeymoon…seriously,” she laughed. Her romantic trip to Saint Lucia a reminder of the harrowing ordeal she endured. “It was all good,” she finished.

As DJ Maurice dropped beats, survivors from every walk of life were joined in one cause, one mission: to overcome and defy cancer. Many had similar stories. Breast cancer survivors, some having lumpectomies others mastectomies to rid their bodies of the killer cells.

Some underwent chemo, others radiation therapy, most of them both. The underlining message that rang true with every woman’s recount of their struggle was that they are grateful to be alive and to be living cancer clear.

Bertha Ruth is a 10-year survivor of stage one breast cancer. Discovering a lump, she immediately went to see her doctor only to be told it was a sebaceous cyst.

“A lot of times women do have those,” she said.

So for three years Ruth diligently had her mammograms and each time she was told there were no worries. But a nurse practitioner found the lump on one of Ruth’s yearly visits and decided to do an ultrasound just to be sure.

“That’s how they discovered it,” said Ruth who counts herself as lucky to be alive. The cancer had remained in stage one over the years. “Evidently it was a slow growing cancer; three years…I could have been in stage four and dead,” she said.

Early detection is the key to a higher survival rate, especially if a cancer is aggressive. Nettie Jackson, a breast cancer survivor since 2004 can attest to that.

“I had only four treatments because mine was caught very early,” said Jackson who feels the only way to combat cancer is to get all your test in and not to waste time. Her cancer was detected in its early stage and she had portions of her infected breast removed. Fortunately, she was still able to have reconstructive surgery after her modified mastectomy.

“It was rough, but it was OK,” she said. “I’m healthy and advocating for early detection.”

However, not all cancers can be detected with conventional methods. Diagnosed in 1999 with inflammatory breast cancer, which is very rare and not diagnosed with a lump, Evelyn Daniels wants women to know the signs and not depend on their doctor’s knowledge.

“You can have a mammogram and it will show that you are clear and you can be at stage four. It can look like a rash or a bug bite; you can have swollen lymph nodes under your arm or an inverted nipple,” she explained. “When you go to a doctor they might send you to a dermatologist thinking it is an infection. Meanwhile it is spreading rapidly.”

Daniels’ cancer was caught at stage three B and the survivor rate at that time was about 16 percent for living only five years. “I am really blessed to be still surviving.”

Since the cancer is on the skin, the breast and infected lymph nodes must be removed. In Daniels case she had a mastectomy, 12 lymph nodes taken out and underwent chemo and radiation. She has been cancer clear for 15 year.

For more information on the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life events that still remain throughout the county, go to relay.acsevents.org and click on find an event.

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