Relay for Life of Whidbey celebrates, remembers

No one sees it coming. But when the big word “cancer” enters a life, everything changes. For Whidbey Island, the one good change is the community support of Relay for Life of Whidbey.

More than 1,030 people participated in Relay for Life, plus walkers who weren’t part of teams. So far, they’ve raised more than $180,000 for the American Cancer Society. Fundraising continues through August.

Dave Thompson, 46, of Oak Harbor, attended Relay for Life for the first time Friday, June 1.

“I thought I would just show up and make that Survivor Lap and show my honor to those who are out here supporting us,” Thompson said.

In October, he was told he has multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. It dissolves the bones, and the dissolution of one of his vertebra caused the fracture that alerted Thompson’s doctors. He’d been having severe back pain for two months before the fracture, but when doctors examined him they found tumors too.

When he found out he had cancer, Thompson’s reaction was “wow.”

“All the other crap, the emotions that came with it came later. It was a ‘wow’ experience. Maybe someday I’ll sit back and put more words to it than ‘wow,’” Thompson said.

Thompson said he got the “free” helicopter ride to Harborview Medical Center, “where they bolted me back together and then I started all that great chemo treatment.”

While his doctors say he’s almost in remission, they will harvest stem cells from him just in case.

“It’s just a one day at a time thing anyways,” Thompson said.

“It’s sobering, gratifying, remorseful and back to that word ‘wow.’ All you have to do is hang out in any cancer treatment agency and see the miracles and the sorrows of those people afflicted. It’s been a hell of a ride. Would I have liked to miss it? Sure. But at the same time, it’s life and you live life,” Thompson said.

The real celebration, Thompson said, should be about the “unsung heroes” who help him cope.

“It all kind of happened so fast I guess I was awestruck by the love that flowed into my hospital room,” Thompson said. It was the love of his wife, Anne, and two daughters, as well as family, friends, church friends, co-workers and the care of his nurses and doctors that pulled him through; “the people that are fighting the battle for us,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s friend, Michael Neuhauser, 28, joined him for the Survivor Lap.

“I call him an inspiration for me. He helps me through a lot of stuff,” Neuhauser said of Thompson. Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of immune system cells.

When he was diagnosed, his biggest worry was about insurance covering the myriad of costs.

“I personally think money shouldn’t be an issue with human life,” he said.

What surprised him about the experience so far is the openness of cancer survivors to share their experiences.

“You say ‘cancer’ and people open up,” Neuhauser said. “Look, you’ve got people walking in pouring down rain. They’re willing to help you.”

Walkers around the track at North Whidbey Middle School were quickly soaked as the rain started just before the Survivor Lap. That didn’t stop survivors and community members alike from walking to raise money for the cure and to spread hope.

Peggy Swart, of Greenbank, has been coming to Relay for Life for 12 years, since she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, gastrointestinal stromal tumor, and her stomach was removed.

“How lucky we are to be on an island with so many people that care about others. It’s neighbors helping neighbors,” Swart said.

Off-island, Swart said she doesn’t hear about doctors who care more about getting patients well than being paid.

“It’s that small town; you’re raised with your neighbors as your family. With the island, it’s a more extended family,” Swart said.

One of Swart’s favorite parts about the Relay for Life is seeing the children join in.

“That’s when they start learning early to give back and that what goes around comes around,” Swart said.

One youth group involved in Relay for Life was Rainbow for Girls. Teenager Rebecca Robinson captained the team that raised $1,500 before the Relay began. They continued selling clothing at the event to raise money. Robinson made iPod earbud earrings to sell and the group raised money by holding dinners.

“All of us really have known someone who’s had cancer,” said Julia Felici, 15, Rainbow Girls member.

“I think the biggest thing for the girls is to help the community,” said Katie Wiggins, 21, a group leader.

For Jeannie Lupien, Relay for Life means celebrating and remembering those who suffered from cancer. After she found out she had pectoral cancer that spread two years ago, she had a double mastectomy --- a 13-hour operation --- because she wants to raise her two daughters, Teal, 13, and Guini, 11.

She did the Relay for Life even before she was diagnosed; it’s a family tradition. Her mother-in-law was diagnosed one year before her and was at this year’s Relay for Life.

“My daughters are totally into it,” Lupien said, adding that they fundraised in the past.

“It just means a lot of united spirit. We don’t want to forget the people who’ve fought really hard. I see friends and I think of those lost,” Lupien said of Relay for Life.

“The people who run Relay put 100 percent of effort into it,” Lupien added.

As do the community members and cancer survivors who spent the night at the track walking in the rain for the biggest word of all: hope.

“Live today. Don’t give up hope. And fight the fight, however you feel led,” Thompson said.


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