She started her speech with an apology.
Dawnelle Conlisk was sorry about her whispery voice.
Six weeks earlier, Conlisk underwent surgery that she knew would paralyze her vocal cord.
And this, she explained, was why her voice was so quiet as she delivered an address to start the Relay for Life of Whidbey Island event at North Whidbey Middle School in Oak Harbor last week.
As Conlisk, a mother of two from Coupeville, continued to share the details about her 22-year journey with cancer, it was clear no matter how softly she spoke that the hundreds in attendance were gripped by her story.
She was six months pregnant and only 21-years-old when she was told she had thyroid cancer. To compound matters, her husband, a submariner in the Navy, was on deployment.
He was coming back from the sea the next day and Conlisk got a message to the captain.
“The sub wasn’t even attached to the pier fully,” Conlisk said during her speech. “The captain walked right up to Ken and told him to go home. The look on his face as I had to explain right there on the pier that I had cancer and they wanted to operate tomorrow … I will never forget that moment.”
So much has transpired since that heart-wrenching day in 1995 and so many things that Dawnelle Conlisk is grateful for.
“My goal in life from the time I was little was to be a mommy,” Conlisk said during her speech.
That goal was realized — twice — along with many other family milestones. She and her husband have two children, Mary, 21; and Danny, 16.
The cancer fight has been ongoing involving numerous surgeries to remove masses. The surgery she had that impacted her voice was her eighth neck surgery, and she’ll have another this month to place an implant in her neck to help her not aspirate anymore and, ideally, give her her voice back.
Cancer has made the Conlisks look at life differently and embrace it as a precious gift not to be taken for granted.
There was a time for 12 years when levels taken during tests showed that cancer was somewhere in her body but couldn’t be located. She gave her body a break, had their second child and continued to have bi-annual checkups while living their lives.
“In 2013, they were able to locate the cancer again,” Conlisk said during her speech. “I have had a surgery again on my neck in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.”
She identified her cancer as advanced metastatic Stage IV papillary thyroid cancer.
She understands these terms well. She is the department coordinator for WhidbeyHealth Cancer Care.
She said there is cancer in her neck, lungs, soft tissue and on her muscles.
“What do all these words mean to me? Seriously, it’s just a long sentence,” she said. “You see, none of us will get out of life alive. One hundred percent of us will die at some point. The difference is because of my disease at such a young age I have lived life to the fullest every step of the way.
“I may have fat, but I am not fat. I have toenails, but I am not toenails. I have cancer, but I am not cancer. I refuse to stop living.”
Conlisk’s inspiring speech was followed by the traditional survivors’ lap June 2, the first steps taken during the 18-hour, overnight event that raised money and awareness for the American Cancer Society.
The evening featured a new foot-powered car race involving freshly painted cardboard cars to bring attention to the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program. They wanted to show that there is a need for more volunteers to drive patients to and from treatments.
“I didn’t know it was a race,” said Julie Engstrom, a cancer survivor who was in the driver’s seat of the organizing committee team’s car.
The Heroes Helping Heroes team sped to first-place honors in the car race, while the IDEX team car captured the hearts of judges and won the car show.
Matthew Woodcock of the Whidbey Vision Care team was crowned Mr. Relay.
Relay for Life tries to keep things upbeat. The event is designed to celebrate those who’ve survived cancer, remember those lost and inspire those still in the fight — all while raising money for the cause.
With $93,000 raised so far, organizers expect the Whidbey Island event to reach its goal of $100,000 by the time contributions end in August.
“It’s a really positive atmosphere,” said Karla Sharkey, co-chair of this year’s event.
“That’s really important.”
Conlisk could attest to that.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff I can’t control because it doesn’t gain me anything,” she said after her speech.
She’s looking forward to getting her voice back.
When her son, a sophomore at Coupeville High School, finished fifth in the 400 meters at the Class 1B, 2B, 1A state track and field championships in Cheney last month, she couldn’t scream as loudly as she wanted.
“It was still fun,” she said.