EATON — More than 200 people, including 40 cancer survivors, gathered at the fairgrounds on Saturday, June 11, for Preble County Relay For Life, a daylong community celebration where individuals and teams camp out, picnic, dance, play games, and take turns circling a a track “relay” style to raise funds and fight cancer. This year’s event raised nearly $34,000 for the American Cancer Society, an increase of nearly $3,000 from last year’s tally.
Conceived in 1985, Relay For Life began with one man who circled around a track for 24 hours raising $27,000. This year, Relay For Life has grown to more than 5,200 communities and more than 25 countries worldwide.
The event began, as always, with a “survivors’ lap,” with cancer survivors of all ages making the day’s first lap around the track. The day then gave way to an outdoor celebration, with teams of 10 to 15 people walking and reveling in honor of those fighting or lost to cancer.
Eaton resident Christopher Martz was among those who spoke during the opening ceremonies. Martz, 20, was diagnosed at six months old with neuroblastoma, a type of cancer most commonly diagnosed in children ages five or younger. Neuroblastoma has made news in recent months after Houston Texans defensive tackle Devon Still’s daughter, Leah, was diagnosed. In 2015, Still formed the Still Strong Foundation, which raises funds to support childhood cancer research, as well as supporting the household needs of families with a member battling cancer.
“We’re here today for all those who are battling cancer,” he said, “those who’ve survived, and those we’ve lost. At 6 months old, I went in for a simple surgery to remove a cyst, and the doctor came out and told my mother, ‘Your child has cancer.’ I was diagnosed with stage 3 neuroblastoma in the T10 and T12 vertebrae, and it was wrapped around my heart as well. I don’t know how my mother handled it. How do you even react to something like that?”
After surgery and chemotherapy, Martz was given a clean diagnosis on May 20, 1997.
“I’m 19 years cancer free,” he said. “I don’t remember any of what happened, but I’ve got the battle scars to prove it, all the way from one side of my back to the other. It’s a reminder: don’t take a day for granted. Who knows…it could be easily taken away.”
Steve Jarrell of Camden agrees. In fall 2011, Jarrell was diagnosed with melanoma, the most aggressive type of skin cancer. In October 2012, he learned that the cancer had spread internally, with spots on his lungs and a spot on his liver. Jarrell was told his cancer had reached stage 4; there is no stage 5.
He was treated with Yervoy, a new cancer treatment originally approved by the FDA in 2011 for use in cases where late-stage melanoma was unable to be removed by surgery; in October 2015, the FDA expanded its approval to allow use for patients with operable stage 3 melanoma in an effort to prevent reocurrence after surgery.
“Yervoy a monoclonal antibody that blocks a molecule known as CTLA-4 (cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen). CTLA-4 may play a role in slowing down or turning off the body’s immune system, and affects its ability to fight off cancerous cells. Yervoy may work by allowing the body’s immune system to recognize, target and attack cells in melanoma tumors,” the FDA said in a press release last year.
“I had to sit there an hour and a half to two hours with a needle in my arm,” Jarrell said, “once every three weeks, for four treatments. The side effects weren’t too bad.”
“I had my scans done again in spring 2013,” he said, “and all my spots had either shrunk or were gone, and it’s been that way pretty much ever since, for the last three years. They usually give you 6 to 9 months when you have stage four cancer, and I’m on month 44.”
Jarrell has since had a couple of inactive spots in his lungs; doctors say the spots are too small to tell if they’re melanoma or just scar tissue. He retired from the United States Postal Service earlier this year after 30 years as a letter carrier.
“I thank God every day,” he said. “I’m very lucky and very thankful, and it’s hard for me talking to someone who’s not as lucky as I’ve been. It’s a ‘survivor’s guilt’ feeling.”
Tears coming to his eyes, he said, “I just want other people to be lucky like me. That’s what I want. “
Vickey Mikesell walked on Saturday for loved ones lost. Mikesell has spent the last four years as captain of Team Julie, named for a friend and coworker claimed by breast cancer at age 52.
“I also lost my grandmother to cancer in my childhood,” she said, “and then, in May 2015, my mother died of lung cancer at 82. While she was dying, my sister was fighting ovarian cancer, and she died at 58 in September. She fought it more than 10 years. She was amazing; I called her Wonder Woman.”
Team Julie raised $4,385 in individual donations as well as sponsorships from area businesses Brubaker Grain and Neaton Auto Parts.
“It’s one of my callings, I think,” said Mikesell. “I want to help others, and before I pass, hopefully I’ll get to see a cure for cancer.”
The largest group, over 20 strong, was Team Supergirl, raising funds and walking in honor of 16-year-old Eaton resident Bethany Gregg, of Eaton.
Gregg was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in July 2013, and had a full thyroidectomy the following month.
“Her surgery was August 22 at Ohio State,” said her mother, Ursula, “and her birthday was August 23. The surgery was nine and a half hours; she was 13 when she went in, and 14 when she came out.”
Bethany is currently in remission, with two spots of cancer on her neck that remain in observation but are not considered dangerous at the moment.
Bethany doesn’t let it hold her back. When asked if it affects her life at all now, she said, “Not really,” then ran off to dance the Wobble.
Reach Duante Beddingfield at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @duanteb_RH.