The Soldotna Regional Sports Complex parking lot was converted into the grounds of the 2015 Relay For Life Central Peninsula Friday evening.
Peppered among comfortable walking outfits were purple t-shirts, the wearers of which gathered together and opened the relay with a survivors Lap. Jim Bennett, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, took the stage during the opening speeches to talk about his own experience.
Bennett helped form the Kenai Peninsula Prostate Awareness Group, which meets at the Central Peninsula Hospital on the third Thursday of every month. The group hosts a second weekly gathering called “Coffee with Don,” every Tuesday.
The American Cancer Society estimates there are nearly 32,000 cancer survivors in Alaska.
For Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, the survivors lap was the only one she walked Friday.
Porter said she had no idea there was four types of breast cancer — until she was diagnosed with three of them.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women.
“I just thought ‘breast cancer’; end of story,” Porter said. “The first was five years ago, and I was diagnosed twice.”
At first Porter wanted to keep the diagnosis private, not knowing what the results were going to be. Having the disease also puts strain on family, who turn into the caregivers, she said.
“That’s not unusual,” Porter said. “Just ask the other survivors, they will tell you.”
Across the parking lot, Trena Richardson, who survived breast cancer, was chatting with her friend Lore Weimer. Richardson was diagnosed in 2003 during a routine mammogram.
“You are totally terrified. You are totally in shock and terrified,” Richardson said. “Because you are sick. You are going to die tomorrow.”
When Richardson was going through treatment she had to fly to Anchorage regularly. Now, patients can receive all necessary treatment on the Kenai Peninsula.
Alyson Stogsdill, who works as an Legislative Information Officer in Kenai, is the Reach to Recovery coordinator for the Kenai Unit of the American Cancer Society. She is also a survivor of breast cancer.
Stogsdill said many survivors feel a need to give back. When she was receiving her treatment in 1991, she quit treatment for a period because it made her so sick and she wanted to be at work for the legislative session. “I’m kind of a workaholic or something,” Stogsdill said. “I don’t know what my problem is.”
More than two decades later she is alive and well, and helped advocate for the Peninsula Radiation Oncology Center that began operating in 2013.
Romi Haseo was the center’s first patient. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, in March of 2013, and waited until July, when it opened, to start treatment.
Janis Rodgers said she remembers her son holding her barf bag for her on the flight from Kenai to Anchorage and back every week when she was getting treated for her breast cancer. She said her physicians thought her cancer was brought on by severe stress, from losing her husband while she was four months pregnant with her son.
Sitting across the table at the survivor’s dinner, donated each year by the Navarre family, Linda Ruffridge listened to Rodger’s story.
When Ruffridge was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the chances of survival were low, she said.
“I didn’t chose chemo because my physician said it didn’t help much,” Ruffridge said. “All it did was make you miserable and extend your life a little.”
Ruffridge said she completely changed her lifestyle and eliminated sugar and made sure she minimized her stress.
Her friend Janice Sadler, who offered support to Ruffridge while she had the disease, said she watched her friend become much more adventurous.
“I enjoy everyday,” Ruffridge said. “I can’t say I did that before.”
The 2015 relay ended at 1 a.m. on Saturday.
Relay coordinator Carmen Triana said the event was abridged this year to encourage everyone to stay for its entirety.
“We want people to get the idea that there are ups and downs and highs and lows,” Triana said.
By midnight Friday, 26 teams and 250 participants raised more than $43,000, according to the American Cancer Society event page.
However, fundraising is not complete until the cutoff on August 31, 2015, Triana said.
The ‘Paint it Purple Fun Run’ to be held on June 28 at the Tsalteshi Trails is to continue raising money, she said.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at email@example.com