Whidbey residents determined to beat cancer

Oak Harbor’s Gail Seelow is in her second fight against cancer after being rediagnosed last August. - Ron Newberry / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor’s Gail Seelow is in her second fight against cancer after being rediagnosed last August.
— image credit: Ron Newberry / Whidbey News-Times

Since being diagnosed with bone cancer last August, sleep doesn’t come easily for Gail Seelow.

Yet, she surprised herself Saturday morning, nodding off in her car.

The early morning quiet didn’t last, replaced instead by the sounds of heavy machinery.

“They came to clean the Porta Potties,” Seelow said, breaking into laughter.

“I got maybe 10-to-15 minutes of sleep, but I don’t sleep well anyways. For some reason, this (cancer) has affected my sleeping. The doctor gave me some sleeping pills but they just really aren’t doing it for me.”


SEELOW WAS one of hundreds of people from Oak Harbor, Coupeville and other points on Whidbey Island who came to North Whidbey Middle School over the weekend to wage a fight against cancer.

The sun shined on the Relay for Life of Whidbey Island, helping lift spirits and provide an almost festive atmosphere during an event in which people came to celebrate cancer survivors in remission, encourage those still fighting and remember those who lost their battles.

An estimated 2,000 people attended the 20-hour event that is a major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. It started Friday night and didn’t stop until Saturday afternoon.

Many of the Whidbey Relay for Life’s organizing committee, including Seelow, arrived at 9 a.m. Friday for setup with most unable to slow down and shut their eyes till around 4 a.m. Saturday.



SEELOW, 62, started coming to the Relay for Life event in Oak Harbor 15 years ago as a team member for Whidbey Island Bank. But since then, she’s had two bouts with cancer and has rejoined the many purple-clad survivors who come with a hope for a cure.

“This time, I’m at stage 4,” Seelow said, “and I feel it’s very important to raise this money so that my family, my kids, my grandkids don’t get this. We have a family history of it.”

“My sister’s a survivor. My mother died of cancer.”



FUNDRAISING FOR this year’s event is falling short of the committee’s goal, but not short of energy and optimism.

Karla Sharkey, the Whidbey event’s chairperson, had set a goal of raising $210,000. So far, just over $141,000 has been raised. They will keep tabulating until August’s deadline, she said.

“It’s not all about the money,” Sharkey said. “I believe if the participants and the community have a positive experience they will return next year and hopefully the donations will be better.”

There were more smiles than tears.



CONTESTANTS IN the Mr. Rockin’ Relay competition drew looks of astonishment and curiosity. Men put on makeup, dresses, wigs and some wore high heels as they walked the track in search of donations for their teams.

Instead, they got mugged for photographs while being slipped cash.

“You look so pretty,” a young girl said to Coupeville’s Daniel Leavitt, who was decked out in a pink skirt, baring cleanly shaved legs.

Leavitt, 29, won the contest, representing the team for Whidbey General Hospital, where his mother Bonnie works. She is a cancer survivor.

“I do this to raise awareness and just help her out because I love my mom,” he said.



THERE WERE many ways to show love and support at the Whidbey Relay for Life.

Some gave a part of themselves instead of cash.

Piper McMahan, 6, was one of them.

The Oak Harbor kindergartner participated in the Pantene Beautiful Lengths hair donation drive, giving up 8 inches of her hair Saturday to be used to make a real-hair wig for cancer patients.

Jeff McMahan said his daughter’s donation had a more personal meaning this year. He said his mother, Lily McMahan, was fighting cancer and they were headed to Auburn to see her at the hospital after camping out at the Relay for Life event.

He said his daughter wanted to donate her hair after he told her about the program. He said this year’s event impacted him even more.

“Yeah, big time,” he said.



OAK HARBOR hairstylist Naomie Robinson, a member of the Whidbey Relay for Life committee, donated her time for the cuts. She was busy, giving haircuts to several others, including Oak Harbor High School business education teacher Sabrina Underwood as well as 10-year-old Jacob Charboneau.

Charboneau was doing it for his little sister Elayana, who is a cancer survivor.

“It’s what he’s focused on for six months,” their mother, Wendy Charboneau said.

Only 4, Elayana represented how cancer doesn’t discriminate. She was treated at 13 months of age and has had “a clean bill of health ever since,” her mother said.



RYAN NEAL, 25, of Coupeville, also was wearing a purple “survivors” T-shirt. He joined the hundreds in purple who participated in the survivor lap that began the relay Friday night.

“I’ve been relaying since I was 4-years-old,” he said. “I lost both of my grandparents to lung cancer.”

Neal was found to have leukemia at age 2, but now has been “cancer-free” for 23 years.

Near the front of the pack of the survivor lap was Oak Harbor’s Kate Rosenthal being pushed in a wheelchair with three large balloons above her in the shape of a number that represented her age.

One hundred.



ROSENTHAL’S FIRST bout with cancer was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 58.

That was 42 years ago.

“She has it again now. They’ve got it under control,” said her daughter Rita Lambert.

“She’s had it six times,” said another daughter, Katy Reissner.

Rosenthal sat in her chair and smiled warmly. She said the Relay for Life event was “wonderful” and was happy she came.

“You take care of family,” she said, sharing some of her life wisdom, “all the in-laws, and outlaws, and all that.”

She laughed a little.

Her daughters said their mother has always been a gentle soul, always so positive, always so kind to others.

She likes chocolate, prays at night and enjoys an occasional cold beverage.

“She does like beer,” Lambert said.

“Yeah, I do,” Rosenthal said.

“You’ve got to be positive,” Reissner said. “She’s always real positive.”



POSITIVE ENERGY was everywhere at North Whidbey Middle School. It’s as if everyone just wanted to will cancer away.

Roughly 1,250 luminary bags were placed around the track and were lit Friday night. They represented survivors in remission, those still being treated and the ones who lost their fight.

Twenty-one lanterns were lit and set free into the night sky during a luminary ceremony that some ranked among the best in Oak Harbor.

A poem was read during the ceremony.

“Their memories surround us, on their journey we reflect; we feel their arms around us, here to comfort, love and protect.

“It’s them that we’re here for, they put up the fight; whether living or passed, they light up the night.

“The time has come to light up the track, and to go back out and do what we’re here for, celebrate, remember and fight back.”


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