Running ’Round The Clock To Beat Cancer

sonya and Brandon raines. Amanda Gregg photo

Cancer survivors and their friends and families will run through the night at two events on Kaua‘i to help raise funds to fight the disease

When Kapa’a resident and cancer survivor Sonya Raines asked her doctor how long she had to live, he didn’t answer with a number. He simply said, “Go live your life.”

And that’s exactly what she decided to do.

To Raines and husband Brandon, that included speeding up a move from Chico, Calif., to Kaua’i.

Now cancer-free, Raines lives a life full of Kaua’iesque activities, including steering canoe paddling races such as the Na Pali Challenge and walking in Kaua’i’s Relay For Life events.

This year, the hairy cell leukemia survivor says she plans to participate in the April 30 Relay For Life in Hanapepe, in what she describes as an emotional and positive event. It’s something that Raines – along with others who work with cancer patients or have known someone who had the disease – believes boosts the morale of those who have been affected by cancer.

“It’s a learning experience that everyone can benefit from,” Raines says, noting it’s not just about the survivors lap, but about honoring those who are battling the disease and those who have passed away.

For those who aren’t familiar with Relay For Life, the event kicks off with a dinner and continues with a survivors lap, care-givers walk and an all-night relay – the reason being cancer is a 24/7 disease that stops for no one.

This year two Relay For Life events are scheduled on Kaua’i, the first is April 30 in Hanapepe and the second July 30 in Hanalei.

County employees, including Mayor Carvalho, at last year’s relay For Life. Photo courtesy Nalani Brun

Nalani Brun, economic development specialist for the county, has been participating in Relay for Life for eight years and is part of the county’s Relay For Life team.

“My mom had cancer for over 30 years,” Brun says. “She survived with it for a long time, but finally succumbed to it.”

Brun says her mom was told she had six months to live, but carried on for three decades – a true fighter.

“She started with breast cancer and ended up with bone cancer, and then it moved to the pericardium,” she says. “She was so funny – there was this (chemotherapy) pill for her cancer, and even when all she could have was ice chips, she would pop up every day, and ask for that pill, up until the end. She just never stopped fighting. It was emotional but invigorating that someone had that kind of fight. So instead, now we fight for everyone else.”

This year those participating along with Brun will light a luminary for Brenda Martin, former secretary of the Office of Economic Development, who recently died.

“(Martin) was a good fighter, too – one of those strong women,” Brun says, adding that in the past friends lit luminaries in Martin’s honor, and now they will light one in her memory.

“She was happy to have the time she had, and taught us to live,” Brun says. “It’s not about choosing to die, but living every second you have.”

And Relay For Life is entertaining in every moment, Brun adds.

Luminaries from a past Relay For Life. Photo courtesy Nalani Brun

“It’s a great event,” she says. “You walk around and check out the luminaries that are just beautiful; you dance, and the food is great – some healthy, some not. It’s just a blast.”

County team captain Ann Wooton says she looks at the event as an opportunity for the community to celebrate all survivors.

“You fight back with every dollar you collect,” she says. “Every person you tell and every step you take helps in the fight against cancer.”

Oncology nurse Darcy Attisani, who also specializes in palliative care, says that over the past 20 years, treatment for cancer patients has changed significantly on-island, thanks to research by the American Cancer Society and fundraisers such as Relay For Life.

“Before we had a certified oncologist on island it was a horrible experience,” she says.

“We made (patients) very sick, and the outcomes weren’t as good as they are today. But now we can give treatment where people can eat and not vomit, and that’s primarily because of the work of the American Cancer Society and the money made through relays.”

Oncology nurse Beth Carter, who captained a relay a few years back while nine months’ pregnant, agrees.

“We have so much fun in our department,” Carter says. “You wouldn’t think so, but you get to know people and it’s not all sad stories. People get out of there cured of cancer and you can’t beat that. And without Relay For Life, a lot of the research that made that happen wouldn’t be possible.”

Millie Cuaresma Curtis, community manager of income development for the American Cancer Society Hawaii, says the money raised goes toward everything from helping patients with lodging when traveling to Oahu for treatment, to efforts such as lobbying for smoke-free restaurants.

“(It’s about) fighting back against a disease that has taken so much,” Curtis says. “I have never met anyone who has not been affected by cancer. One just may not know that the person in front of them at the checkout counter or the telelmarketer who calls you at dinnertime (are) cancer survivors.”

Cancer is, in fact, something that affects nearly everyone. As Mickey MacMillian, certified oncology nurse and North Shore Relay For Life chairwoman, points out, one in three women and one in two men at some point in their lifetime will have the disease.

“We all know somebody who’s been affected,” MacMillian says. “That’s why there is such a feeling of union with this event, and you’re touched in a way you never knew you could be by it.”

MacMillian lost her mom, Beverly LaVarre, last year in April to breast and lung cancer. MacMillian’s sister, Pam LaVarre, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and was the North Shore luminary spokesperson in 2009. She says being an oncology nurse and having cancer strike two people in her family was a “nightmare.”

“It kinda takes the wind out of your sails,” she says, adding that she was grateful her mom was able to die at home thanks to hospice care: “It was a peaceful, beautiful death, if there is such a thing.”

Those wanting to participate in either of the two Relay For Life events this year can contact Curtis by email at for the April 30 event at Hanapepe Soccer Field. For the July 30 event at Waioli Park in Hanalei, call MacMillian at 645-6639.