Saturday's Relay for Life event honors victims of cancer

Friday, April 23, 2010

Staying up all night isn't a big deal to Michelle Jones. She does it to honor the memory of her sister and help people whose lives are being affected the same way hers was 10 years ago.

Jones and a team of co-workers from the Bank of Missouri in Cape Girardeau will participate in the American Cancer Society's local Relay For Life on Saturday.

Relay For Life events are held around the world each year. For this year's Cape Girardeau event, the American Cancer Society originally planned a 12-hour campout for teams Saturday at Arena Park. The event has been moved inside the Arena Building because of a threat of rain. A survivor luncheon will be held at 1 p.m. and teams may begin setting up indoor campsites at 2:30. The opening has been moved back to 4 p.m.

Jones has been participating on behalf of her sister for several years. In 1998, her sister, Rebecca Whitworth-Hamm, was diagnosed with a form of cancerous carcinoma which began on her tongue, spread to her neck and then to her lymph nodes. According to Jones, doctors said Rebecca had a smoker's cancer that commonly affected mainly older individuals. It was unusual in someone in their twenties. Rebecca had chemotherapy and her cancer went into remission.

She gave birth to a daughter and, shortly after, discovered the cancer had returned in her lungs. She underwent six hour-long sessions of high-powered chemotherapy treatments every three weeks, Jones said, but passed away in September 2000 at age 26 while her daughter was still an infant.

Rebecca's daughter, now 10 years old, reminds Jones often of her sister, she said.

"A lot of things she does are just like Rebecca, and it's amazing that we have her," Jones said. "[Rebecca] was my only sister. We would do the girls' night thing and always have Saturdays be girls' night out. It's been 10 years but it's been really hard on me. No matter how long it's been, you still miss them, and they are still in your heart. It's like there's emptiness there."

During the time Rebecca was sick, Jones and her co-workers formed their first Relay For Life team. Although Rebecca was never well enough to participate, Jones said she was very supportive of their efforts.

For 12 years the team has participated in the events and held fundraisers for the cause, setting out to raise money for the next year's event as soon as one is over. Jones said the bank's president, Moe Sanford, is also very supportive of the cause because of a family member's battle with cancer.

"Some of us wear buttons with my sister's picture on it, and we raise money by having cookouts and wearing jeans on Fridays. We have to pay $3 to wear them," Jones said.

Jones said one part of the event, staying up all night and camping out with the teams, is important for her. She said she did it for the first time several years ago because she really wanted to know how her sister must have felt while she fought cancer and had chemotherapy treatments.

"I was very exhausted by the end, but I do it because it's a good cause, and everybody knows somebody who has cancer. But the reason I really did it was because of my sister," she said.

Danielle McGuire, who works as the community manager of development for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society, said the timing of overnight Relay For Life events symbolizes for participants how a cancer patient feels going through illness and treatment. The event will officially begin at sundown on Saturday. Teams are asked to stay awake and have at least one member walking around a track at all times through the night until the event ends at 5 a.m. Sunday morning.

"Just like a cancer patient, we ask that they don't give up and go to sleep," McGuire said. "In the morning, when the night comes to an end, it is meant to symbolize for them that the light is coming and that they made it through," she said.

Fifty-two teams have filled the registration list for this year's event. A goal has been set to raise $156,000 to be used by the organization for the purposes of research, education, advocacy services and patient services, McGuire said. Last year's event raised $154,000.

McGuire said the community can come out and participate in many events on Saturday even if they are not part of a registered team. McGuire said the event has a fair-like atmosphere, and many activities and items available are remnant of the SEMO District Fair. Some of the day's events will include a karaoke contest, a frozen T-shirt contest, silent and live auctions featuring a NASCAR package and St. Louis Cardinals tickets, and three live local bands in the evening. A hot-air balloon will be set up in the park. McGuire said if the weather permits, people will be offered tethered rides.

A luminary ceremony will also highlight the evening events. For the ceremony, participants may purchase a bag and candle with the name of a cancer victim for $10 from the American Cancer Society. At night, the luminaries are lit to signify the loss of life from cancer and to honor memories of loved ones.

Teams are being asked to decorate their camps with this year's Relay For Life theme, "Celebrating More Birthdays." McGuire said she knows of two teams that will decorate their areas with Dora the Explorer and Sweet Sixteen themes. Registration for teams begins at 12:30 p.m. at Arena Park.

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