Renton Relay for Life was defining moment in cancer saga

I’m a cancer survivor. It’s been 11 years since doctors discovered my brain tumor; 10 since I finished radiation and chemotherapy; one since I received my last required MRI. But it wasn’t until Saturday night that I finally celebrated defeating cancer.

I’m a cancer survivor. It’s been 11 years since doctors discovered my brain tumor; 10 since I finished radiation and chemotherapy; one since I received my last required MRI. But it wasn’t until Saturday night that I finally celebrated defeating cancer.

And I wasn’t alone.

An estimated 700 people on 44 teams celebrated cancer survivorship Saturday night and Sunday morning during the 2008 Renton Relay For Life at Renton Memorial Stadium. Through donations, an initial $103,000 was raised for the American Cancer Society.

Donations are accepted until August, but Renton co-chair Nancy Knowles says that initial figure is the most Renton has ever raised on Relay day. Renton Relay For Life started about 10 years ago.

Last weekend’s party started 6 p.m. Saturday with a presentation of the Colors and the National Anthem, and ended at 10 a.m. Sunday with closing ceremonies. In between was music, Twister, football, frisbee, soccer, raffles, a pajama lap, a dance-off and more. Plus walking and running. Each relay team continuously circled the track throughout the overnight event.

But there were also somber moments. At 10 p.m. the stadium went dark, save for the candlelit white paper bags circling the track. Each bag was named for someone who is living with or was lost to cancer. Each name was read as participants circled the track.

After all, cancer isn’t always about surviving. Many lose the battle. As co-chair Jackie Judd said to Saturday’s crowd, Relay For Life has three purposes: to celebrate those who have battled cancer and won, to remember those who have battled cancer and lost and to fight back against the cell-mutating disease.

There was plenty of fighting back at Renton Memorial Stadium last weekend.

After the national anthem, I joined the crowd of survivors on the track. We each wore a purple baseball cap and purple shirt with “SURVIVOR” printed across the back.

We were all different. A woman with a baby in a stroller, an older man sporting a U.S. flag cap, a young woman in a wheelchair, a woman with round sunglasses, a headband and a peace sign necklace, a pale young man with a smooth, bald head.

But when “I Will Survive” came over the sound system, we were united. Many of us clapped and danced. Then we walked. Just one lap around the track. But it was powerful.

White-shirted people circled the infield, facing us. They clapped and cheered, shook maracas and slapped our hands.

I’ve spent much of the past 11 years pretending I never had cancer. During treatment I hid beneath surliness and wool hats. I was 14. I didn’t start talking about my cancer years until college. Years later, and the memories still brought tears.

But Saturday’s crowd made me proud to acknowledge my cancerous past. I held out my hand to the circle of supporters. I smiled.

When the woman next to me asked how long I’d been a survivor I proudly replied: “10 years.” She had two.

Others, like the young bald man, are still fighting. His name is Gary Hrenchir, he’s 36 and a computer programmer. He has testicular cancer. He was diagnosed in 2006, and just finished stem-cell replacement. Surgery may be next. It’s his second year participating in Relay For Life. It’s a good cause, he says.

Has treatment been difficult?

“Some of it has,” he says, “like hospital stays.”

Jerri Wood is another cancer survivor who isn’t out of the woods yet. Wood, 55, has spent five years with a brain tumor. A tumor in between benign and malignant. It’s fine as long as it doesn’t grow. She’s had a couple treatments to reduce the tumor, and annual MRIs.

Like many at Saturday’s relay, Wood has many cancer connections. Her father died from lung cancer. Her mother is a five-year breast cancer survivor.

Saturday was Wood’s second Relay For Life. She also battles cancer through her PTA, labor union and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

“It’s a community effort,” she says. “Nobody gets through this alone.”

Relay For Life is a good way to fight back, she says.

“It’s like pay it back and pay it forward. This is one of those rare opportunities where you get to do it.”

Wood’s son Justin was also walking Saturday — as part of a team from Hazen High School.

Lindbergh and Renton high schools also had teams, as did Valley Medical Center, Group Health and other organizations.

Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts also came out — helping prepare the Luminaria candles.

“It’s an amazing turnout,” co-chair Knowles said Saturday night.

She guessed the turnout was Renton’s biggest yet.

The first Relay For Life was in Tacoma in 1986. A colorectal surgeon named Dr. Gordy Klatt started the event the year before, in 1985, when he spent 24 hours circling a track. Friends paid to accompany him. He ran/walked 83 miles and raised $27,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Participants collected donations before Saturday’s Relay. More funds were raised Saturday.

Valley Medical Center sold lap necklaces for $1. Buyers got a bead or button strung on a purple cord for each lap. Stands hawked jewelry, scarves and rice crispy treats. Quilts were auctioned, and “CANCER SUCKS” T-shirts were for sale at the information booth.

There were also free charitable services. Carol Braunschweig cut hair for Locks of Love, a nonprofit that makes wigs for children. Braunschweig is a hairdresser at Center Coiffures in Renton, where she offers Locks of Love service anytime.

“This is my prize,” Braunschweig said from her chair in the Survivor’s Tent Saturday. She held up a dark brown braid. “Twenty-four inches,” she said.

The Survivor’s Tent was just one of the many tents Saturday. Each team had a tent on the bright green infield. And many more tents for sleeping dotted the field. Many participants stayed the night.

Four Lindbergh girls were planning on overnighting it. Three said they know people who have or have had cancer. It was the girls’ second Relay.

“I like to support cancer patients,” said junior Marlena Vongphakdy. Her grandpa had cancer.

Saturday’s event also drew participants from outside Renton. Betty Furuga came from Hawaii to join her daughter Julie Kawasaki. Both women are breast cancer survivors. Betty was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. It was Betty’s sixth or seventh Relay and Julie’s ninth.

“I think it’s great — it’s really grown since I first started,” Julie said. There were maybe 23 teams then.

Betty and Julie were on team Friendstones: Friends for a Cure.

Bob and Diane Jones also commuted to the Relay. The couple came from Selah, where there isn’t a Relay For Life. Bob lost his stomach to cancer. His small intestine is now connected to his esophagus. Doctors initially gave him three months to live. That was 11 years ago.

“It’s been really good,” Diane said. “It’s been a long haul.”

Pat Marcella knows about long hauls. She’s a sonographer at Valley Medical Center’s Breast Center. Her ultrasounds find breast cancer.

“That’s one key reason why I feel this is important,” she says. “I see the fear that they show on their faces when they’re diagnosed.”

The Breast Center sees several hundred breast cancer patients a year. But better detection and care means more survivors.

“We see more cases, but we’re finding things earlier, so the prognosis is better,” she says.

Marcella became a cancer survivor just this month, when about three inches of her left arm was removed. Skin cancer. She’s fine now.

Cancer survival. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Emily Garland can be reached at or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.

How to donate

Donations to American Cancer Society can be made at, or by mailing a check to: American Cancer Society on behalf of Relay For Life, 2120 First Ave. N. Seattle, WA 98109.