Despite moving indoors due to threatening weather, the spirit and resolve to fight cancer wasn’t dampened Friday night during the Grayson County Relay of Life event.
Inside the gym of Grayson College, cancer survivors, caregivers and community members walked seemingly endless laps around a track overnight to raise funds to benefit the American Cancer Society. From 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., survivors were honored, caregivers were recognized and those who lost the battle with cancer were remembered.
“I like to describe it as a community event that brings people together to fight back against cancer,” Relay for Life Community Manager Karena Sara said. “Throughout the year, teams do fundraising and tonight we all come together for the Relay for Life event and celebrate cancer survivors, remember those who we have lost the battle and celebrate our accomplishments and fundraising goal as a community.”
The event was kicked off with a message delivered by Cheyene Mills, a survivor who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009. She said a diagnosis for one person affects an entire family. She said the night wasn’t just about support, but it’s about a spirit that should be carried throughout the year, and encouraged everyone to keep fundraising and participating.
“It’s not just one night or even the few months you raise money, it’s about keeping access to resources and being screened early and having options for people who are going through cancer and the caregivers too,” Mills said.
The event also recognized the caregiver of the year, which went to Bethani DeMerell. Survivor Tracy DeMerell accepted the award on behalf of her daughter.
“I’m so proud; my heart feels like it could bust,” DeMerell said. “She deserves it, she was just wonderful when she was with me — 100 percent strong and kept me going.”
DeMerell said the family of someone diagnosed just needs to be there for that loved one.
“They don’t have to say a thing — just stand beside them, sit beside them,” DeMerell said. “Watch movies, watch TV, just be there — that’s all they need to do, that means the world.”
Jessica Meuse, an American Idol season 13 participant, performed and kept the crowd energized and walking. The track inside the gym was outlined by numerous paper bags with the name of someone who is currently battling cancer or who has already gone through the battle. The bags were later illuminated for the Luminaria ceremony.
“We shut off all the lights and have the bags lit up, and it reminds people that cancer impacts so many of us,” Sara said. “This is kind of the visual representation of it. A lot of people that’s how they cope — that’s how they help get over it. No matter how many times I’ve sat through a Luminaria ceremony, I still cry.”
Mills said the ceremony is an emotional moment that signifies all those fighting and those who have lost the battle.
“It’s meant to be a profound moment, so that you understand the gravity of it,” Mills said.
Sara said each ceremony reminds her of her mother-in-law, who lost the fight with cancer. She said the ceremony isn’t easy, but it makes a person realize that they’re not in the battle alone.
“That pain and that frustration doesn’t just impact you, but it impacts a lot of people,” Sara said.
Sara said she hopes this event shows that a community can come together to fight back against something that’s bigger than one person. She said it’s amazing to see how many people do show up for it each year, how may people give back and how many people are impacted.
“This is about impacting something bigger,” Sara said. “It’s not just you and your story, but everyone has a similar story. And together you guys can figure it out and be better to our community at large and really help give back.”
For those who don’t have a personal story with cancer, Mills said they still realize how immense of a problem cancer is. It’s something that can strike anyone at any point in life. She said the ACS provided information to her and her family when she was diagnosed.
“Even if you’re young and healthy, get yourself screened,” Mills said. “Educate yourself and help advocate for those who are currently going through it or went through it. … We’re all going to benefit from better medical care, better outcomes.”
Sara noted the funds raised for ACS do make a difference locally.
“The research that all of our funds go to, a lot of it goes to, it impacts people locally,” Sara said. “There are people in this room who have taken a drug, or been a part of early detection that happened because of what the American Cancer Society funds have gone to.”