By Courtney Phillips
In 1985, Dr. Gordy Klatt, a colorectal surgeon in Tacoma, Washington, unintentionally founded the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life program. To demonstrate the fight of a cancer survivor from diagnosis through treatment and to raise awareness for his local American Cancer Society office, he ran and walked around a track for 24 hours. Dr. Klatt logged 83 miles and raised $27,000 to benefit cancer research. A few hundred friends paid $25 to run and walk with him. The rest, as they say, is history.
This year, in 5,200 communities in the United States and in 20 countries, 4 million cancer survivors, caretakers, family and friends will come together at night to walk laps around a track literally illuminated by hope, as “luminarias,” paper bags filled with sand and a candle, are lit in honor of cancer fighters and survivors.
More than $400 million – $5 billion since 1985 – will be raised for groundbreaking research and support services for patients.
Cumberland County has been holding a Relay for Life event since 1995.
This year, Relay will be held at 6:00 p.m. on May 2 on the track of Village Christian Academy on South McPherson Church Road. Last year, the event raised more than $88,000. This year, the committee hopes to raise $105,000, but co-chair and cancer survivor Teresa Tanner is adamant that the purpose of the event is more than dollars raised for a cure. “So many people are helped, locally, by this event. So many more lives would be touched if people knew we are here. That is the goal,” she expressed.
From transportation to treatment and support from other cancer survivors, to wigs and programs to improve the self-image of women in treatment, the impact of participating or contributing locally is clear: 136 cancer patients in Cumberland County benefitted from services of the American Cancer Society in 2013.
Cumberland County’s Relay will kick off with a lap just for survivors. As darkness falls, the Luminaria ceremony will take place to remember those touched by cancer. Finally, participants take place in a powerful Fight Back ceremony, where everyone commits to have a positive effect on the fight against cancer. Each team is encouraged to have a member on the track at all times throughout the night, because cancer never sleeps.
Her husband was in Iraq when Kris Thomas was diagnosed with stage I infiltrating ductal carcinoma. Her two children were with a babysitter for the appointment, and as is the case for many women in the area, her core support system was hundreds of miles away.
She left the hospital shocked and confused, with only a plastic bag containing a few pamphlets to guide her fight against breast cancer.
Four years later, with a clean bill of health, she felt compelled to give back. Her thoughts kept coming to rest on the cold and impersonal white plastic bag of pamphlets. Fighters need more – comfort, understanding and hope.
After discussing her feelings with a friend, Shannon Rasmussen, they founded Warrior Angels, a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization, which collects, compiles and distributes “Comfort Bags” to all patients diagnosed with breast cancer at Womack Army Medical Center.
Markedly more comforting than the white bag that plagued Kris so, she and Shannon fundraise tirelessly to distribute this useful toolkit. In the bag, patients will find access to credible resources, a signature Warrior Angels pink camouflage scrub cap, water bottle, lip-gloss, journal and comprehensive list of questions to ask a doctor. “All the things I wish I knew and wish I had,” said Kris. Ultimately, they want to send a message to newly diagnosed women that they are not alone.
Kris describes her diagnosis as “humbling.” Like many military spouses, she was exceedingly independent and never wanted to burden anyone, but she said, “You have to ask for help. You can’t do it alone.”
In both her quest of recovery and founding a non-profit, her hope for humanity was strengthened. “People still care. They want to give back. In treatment and with Warrior Angels, I’ve found a new network of people who want to help.”
The cost of each bag is approximately $25. To offset this cost, Warrior Angels accepts sponsorships and personal donations. Often, former Comfort Bag recipients contribute to ensure other women will receive that same comfort.
To date, Kris and Shannon have distributed 250 Comfort Bags. Of her thoughtfulness and dedication, Kris said simply, “I get so much more from these women than I could ever give them.”