In its 19th year, the Relay for Life of Central Peninsula saw clear skies, whipped cream pies and plenty of people happy to be out raising money for a good cause.
About 186 participants and 28 teams raised just more than $39,200 for the American Cancer Society before and during Friday’s Relay for Life event, held at Skyview Middle School, according to the team’s event page.
Event Lead Johna Beech said it is a common misconception that raising funds ends with the culmination of the outdoor event. Participants will be collecting donations through August, and a few other small events are in the works, she said.
Beech is inspired to participate in and help organize Relay for Life because she doesn’t see cancer being treated similarly to other pervasive diseases in the country and throughout the world, she said.
“I’m tired of people being diagnosed,” Beech said. “When I was down south for a conference for the advocacy side of things that I do … this one gal was telling me … ‘It’s amazing how we talk about how we battle cancer, we fight cancer, we’re a survivor,’ right? But you don’t hear about that with diabetes, you don’t hear about that with, you know, any of the other diseases — heart disease, asthma.”
Beech praised the involvement of the Kenai Peninsula community year after year. It can be surprising to people, she said, to watch the survivor’s lap at the beginning of the event and see community members they had no idea were affected by cancer.
One such resident is Joyce Gillespie of Soldotna, who lost her husband to cancer in 2006 and is herself a survivor of a very rare cancer, she said. Gillespie said she has always enjoys participating in Relay for Life, and that she is glad it has since been moved back to Skyview after a particularly windy year in Kenai.
“I think it’s great that so many people support it,” she said. “We just all want to find cures for all kinds of cancer, every kind, so that we can put our money and effort into something else.”
Those who turned out to Relay for Life, shortened this year from 12 to six hours, could partake in games and treats at booths lining the outdoor track, get their hearts racing with a Zumba workout and several other activities. Alan Kasdorf, director of IT at Peninsula Community Health Services, co-captained a team this year and helped entertain children with free balloon making and face paining. Kasdorf said he became even more inspired to get involved since his brother was diagnosed with stage four nasopharyngeal cancer.
“He found out in January, so that’s kind of the drive,” he said. “I volunteered prior before knowing that, but that just gave me kind of the extra incentive to be out here and be part of it.”
Those walking around the track this year could also pause to send plates of whipped cream flying into the faces of their favorite local city and government officials. Soldotna Mayor Pete Sprague, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Sean Dusek, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, Kenai Fire Marshal Tommy Carver, Senator Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), Soldotna Police Officer Steve Clary, Kenai resident Travis Burnett and former Seldovia City Manager Tim Dillon all took several whipped cream pies to the face and torso in the name of raising money.
Beech said the local celebrities are good sports about volunteering for the event because it’s hard to find anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way, including those who volunteer. She referenced a project launched by the American Cancer Society called One Degree, the tenant of which is that everyone is only separated from cancer in some way by one degree.
“If you think about it, you can’t throw a rock and not hit somebody who has experienced it, either personally or (otherwise),” Beech said.
One family got to share their personal story with the Relay participants. Sterling residents Jen and Jon Shoemaker and their five children could be seen throughout the event draped in superhero costumes. They spoke with attendees about the diagnosis of their daughter, Linzi, at the age of 2 with neuroblastoma — a cancer that starts in early forms of nerve cells and is common in young children — when she was 2 years old. Now about to turn 5, Linzi went through significant treatment including chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, radiation, surgery and a technique developed within the last seven or eight years, antibodytherapy, Jen Shoemaker said.
“That is something that has come about because of cancer research,” she said. “Linzi’s diagnosis went from 15 percent survival to 50 because of that new therapy.”
Linzi will be considered in remission when she reaches five years of being cancer free, her mother said. This was the first year the Shoemakers participated in the local Relay for Life, and said sharing Linzi’s story is their way of giving back to the people who helped with everything from their finances during her treatment to little cards and notes of encouragement.
“The community is what was so vital for us and our journey of beating cancer,” Jen Shoemaker said. “Being here tonight, it just reminds you how important the community is for beating cancer, it’s huge. It’s the people you do live with.”