Honoring The living And The Dead

The luminary ceremony at Relay For Life commemorates those who have either survived or lost their fight with cancer CHRIS GAMPON PHOTO

The luminary ceremony at Relay For Life commemorates those who have either survived or lost their fight with cancer CHRIS GAMPON PHOTO

American Cancer Society’s annual Relay For Life happens April 25, and cancer survivor Kathy Koerte once again Will Be participating

KATHY KOERTE was diagnosed with colon cancer more than a decade ago.

“I felt devastated,” she says.

Thankfully, she has been in remission for almost 13 years, and one way she likes to celebrate is to participate in American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life.

“Relay For Life is an amazing event that brings the community together,” says the American Cancer Society (ACS) volunteer, who recently was named a “Hero for Hope” for her continuous efforts to help the nonprofit. “We, as a community, celebrate survivors, recognize our caregivers, those presently going through their journey; and it also remembers loved ones who have lost their battle with cancer. It is an experience that touches many lives.”

The annual commemoration of life, set for April 25, is a community affair where teams of five to more than 20 members gather to remember those who have battled cancer. Groups camp on Hanapepe Soccer Field while team members take turns walking around a track for up to 24 hours.

“In a sense, they capture a short moment in the life of a cancer survivor,” explains Patti Ornellas, community manager at the ACS Kauai field office. “They walk in the footsteps of a cancer survivor.”

Attendees symbolically start the track refreshed, “on a good day,” and take turns walking through the darkest hours of the night, when they are tired and feel like they’re ready to give up, but they are encouraged to push through to morning.

“They persevere and continue to the next day, which starts a new journey for them,” explains Ornellas.

Cancer survivors take the first lap, their caregivers the next, and then the teams join in and continue on the path until the next day.

“It becomes a big celebration about the survivors and getting them to the destination that they need to go, which is hopefully a cure,” says Nalani Brun, who has been instrumental in organizing the relay.

The inaugural survivor lap is one of the most emotional experiences of the event.

“You see a sea of purple,” says Ornellas. “And we have golf carts that we get for the survivors who can’t walk. But they fight us; they want to walk. It is the most moving moment to see them. As long as it will take to get around that circle, they’ll do it.”

In the evening, candlelit luminaries are placed around the track, each intended to serve as a tribute to someone who has survived the disease, or as a memory of someone who lost the battle.

“That’s just all of their souls that continue to live among us,” says Ornellas.

Fundraising efforts began months ago. Teams generate money through various means, including car washes or bake sales. The funds raised are donated to ACS, which uses the money for research, programs for survivors, and as financial assistance for airfare, ground and hotel transportation for people undergoing treatments off-island. Relay For Life is the culminating event that honors these efforts and, of course, the lives of loved ones, whether they have died or are surviving.

Events like this make it possible for ACS to be influential in the lives of people like Koerte. Shortly after receiving her diagnosis, she contacted the organization.

“Once I did, I was provided with much-needed emotional support, information, airfare — and I was invited to participate in programs such as Look Good Feel Better and Relay For Life,” she says.

Nearly everyone has been touched by cancer at some point in their lives, including Brun and Ornellas, whose mothers both died from the disease decades ago.

“We do this in their honor — we remember them,” says Ornellas.

It is their hope, along with Koerte’s, that the world one day will be cancer-free.

“I’ll continue to do whatever I can to help with volunteering and being involved to help finish the fight against cancer,” vows Koerte.

This year, more than 50 teams and nearly 500 people already have raised close to $90,000 for ACS.

Relay for Life starts at 5 p.m. April 25 and is open to the public. Visit relayforlife.org for more information. cocomidweek@gmail.com