As dozens of cancer survivors, sporting purple shirts, walked the first lap, hundreds of Relay for Life participants lined the track, providing a round of applause in their honor. Smiles, tears and hugs were all a part of the 2019 Douglas County Relay for Life.
The 29th annual event took place Friday, July 12, at the Douglas County Fairgrounds.
The 39 teams formed for this year's event, which is up from previous years, have until mid-August to turn in their money, said Lorene Pitcher, one of the main organizers of the event. Preliminary numbers, she said, show that more than $177,000 has been raised so far.
"I know there are still funds being raised and I am hopeful that we could hit our $200,000 goal," she said.
Pitcher said everything went well at this year's event due to the "awesome committee, their families, the teams and community support." She touched on a few highlights, which included the beautiful purple lighting on the trees from LiveWire, the music from Blonde and the Bohunk and the dance contest, which she said brought in $4,000 that night.
New this year were pedometers for the teams. One member from each team was encouraged to be on the track at all times wearing a pedometer. Of the 39 teams, 24 teams tracked their steps for a total of about 416,000 steps. Integrity Title took first place and Alomere Health took second.
"One team put their pedometer on a 2-year-old little guy and he walked 7,000," said Pitcher. "Now that's impressive."
The pedometers were a fun challenge to have between the teams and a great way to make sure someone was walking throughout the entire event, Pitcher added.
Other activities included this year's honorary survivors, Austin Baune, Dennis Anhalt and Cindy Ziegelman, sharing their stories during opening ceremonies and helping to light the Flame of Hope.
Lots of other activities took place throughout the evening including a kiddie parade, boxcar derby, Zumba fitness, and balloon messages sent to heaven.
"This was our 29th relay event in Douglas County, but it still surprises me how many people don't know about the event or what we do," said Pitcher. "I hope to do something special for our 30th event next year!"
Blessed to be here
Chelsea Lee, ministry program coordinator at Love INC of Douglas County, emceed the event. This was her fifth year in that role. She missed 2017 because her husband's grandpa, who lost his battle with cancer, was laid to rest that very day.
Lee and Pitcher write up the script for each ceremony. Lee said they add poems, words of empowerment and sincerity that come from a very deep place of gratitude, humbleness and the fire to never quit or give up hope. Both Lee and Pitcher are cancer survivors.
Lee celebrated three years of being cancer free this year and Pitcher said it has been seven years since her treatments for breast cancer.
"I can say I am cancer free," said Pitcher, who got involved with Relay for Life in 2005 when her mom passed away after a short battle with uterine cancer.
Cancer has touched her family way too many times, Pitcher added. Her father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 and is now a 13-year survivor. Last year, however, both her dad and her mother-in-law passed away to multiple myeloma. She has two aunts who are cancer survivors and she has a cousin who is currently a survivor of Stage 4 melanoma.
"Way too much cancer in my life," she said. "But this is why I do what I do."
A good friend told Pitcher early on during her cancer journey that there may come a time when she would ask, "Why me?" but a better approach is to ask, "Why not me?"
Pitcher said she believes she understands the "why me" part. When her mom was going through cancer, she learned so much as she was with her every step of the way. Her mom always maintained a positive attitude, good sense of humor and always had a smile on her face.
When Pitcher was diagnosed with her own cancer, she saw a whole other side of a cancer journey and maintained a positive attitude, just like she learned from her mom.
"I didn't want to waste any of my energy being angry," Pitcher said. "I am blessed to still be here today and have helped a couple of good friends walk the same journey as I did with breast cancer, was by my dad's side with his almost four-year cancer journey and with my mother-in-law's short four-month battle."
Pitcher always likes to share that she believes a positive attitude and outlook can help you get through the journey.
Participating in the Relay for Life is an honor and a privilege, according to Lee.
"I wish people could see what I do from up on the stage. There is a sea of purple, each person with a story to tell," she said. "The endless miles of luminary bags carefully laid out, side by side, showing unity for the ones we lost and the ones still fighting. It's unreal."
Lee said everyone who participates means so much, whether it is the tireless committee member, the teams, those in the hospitality tents and those serving food, the ones setting up the games, those working in "fundraising alley" and each person who comes and walks.
"They are the embodiment of hope, compassion and everything worth living for," she said. "And I know that those who have passed away didn't die in vain. I give all glory to God and I pray that this night and all of the other Relay for Life events out there, give those folks what they are looking for - hope, knowing they are not alone, and to never stop living and loving."
Lee said cancer can take your body, bring you pain and can cause you fear. But, she said, she learned that through the help of God and others around, people can and will get through it.
"Cancer can't touch your soul, steal your joy or overcome love," she said. "We relay to remind each other of that. There is no easy way to say goodbye to someone we love. But how cool is it that thousands of people who have hurt like us come together and celebrate life. They mattered. We all matter. It's hard seeing that track get fuller and fuller each year, but at least they are all being honored. And that matters."