Relay For Life: Celebrate, remember, fight back
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By George Malkemus  June 28, 2013 12:00 am

The 14th annual Rohnert Park-Cotati Relay For Life event was held last weekend at Sonoma Mountain Village.  Relay For Life is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that is so much more.  It is a life-changing event about local communities celebrating the lives of people who have battled cancer and survived, remembering loved ones who have lost the battle and thanking the caretakers who have helped them through this stressful process.

The event is based on teams of people who camp out overnight and take turns walking or running around a path for 24 hours from Saturday morning to Sunday morning.   A representative of each team is on the track at all times because cancer never sleeps. Relay for Life celebrates survivor “birthdays.”  

Birthdays begin from the date of original cancer diagnosis.   I am celebrating my eighth birthday by surviving colorectal cancer, discovered on May 15, 2005.

The Relay setting is beautiful on the west side of Sonoma Mountain Village on the old Agilent soccer field with green grass, tree-lined campgrounds and a paved perimeter-walking path. Then the cancer survivors at the event proceeded to the microphone and stated their names and their years of survival, the longest being 37 years and the shortest being a few months.  The walk followed with cancer survivors leading the way.

There are many touching stories, poems and songs throughout the Relay.  Each year at the event, I meet so many wonderful people with their own challenging cancer stories.  Many have positive survivor results, like mine.  Others were not so lucky and had sad endings, but allowing friends and loved ones to give in their names and celebrate their lives help ease the pain and gives some closure.

One of the highlights each year is the Luminaria Ceremony.  Luminaria bags are decorated with names, pictures and beautiful designs to honor survivors and to remember lost love ones.  

Each bag is filled with a canned food item to raise the height of a candle in the bag to be lit and illuminated.  After the event, the canned goods are donated to the Neighbors Organized Against Hunger (NOAH) food bank for distribution to Rohnert Park needy families. I made a bag in honor of my cousin Steve Malkemus.  Steve and I were the same age and grew up together.  He was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 47 and died at 51.  Steve was a wonderful man and I miss him.

At dark, the luminaria were lit.  Thousands of luminaria encompassed the entire perimeter of the park.  It was a wondrous, inspirational sight, walking the path and seeing all the names and color designs on the luminaria.  The full moon was rising over the eastern mountains as the luminaria glowed.  A peacefully lit sign with the word “hope” shined just below the rising full moon – breath-taking!

Along with the luminaria ceremony, the evening program includes testimonials, poems, songs and a terrific celebration slide show on a big screen.  The slide presentation is set to beautiful music and shows pictures of lost love ones and honored survivors.

At 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, the event closed with a Fight Back Ceremony – Last Lap.   The goodwill and dedication of the participants, volunteers, donors and organizers is amazing.  

The “no complaints,” “no regrets,” and “move on” attitude of the person with cancer is an admirable quality. Cancer prevention involves living a healthy life.  But even living a perfectly healthy life is no guarantee of avoiding cancer.

Awareness and funding of cancer is having an effect. Cancer is not the death threat it once was.  Not long ago, two out of three people died of cancer.  Today, that number has been reduced to one out of three. The importance of early detection and screening for cancer and anti-smoking campaigns are leading the way.  Cancer deaths in the United States and Sonoma County have fallen for the last few years after years of steady increase.  

Deaths decreased in three major cancers – breast, prostate and colorectal.  Lung cancer decreased for men but had a slight increase in women.   Combinations of factors are responsible for the cancer death decline, including an increase in early detection, more effective treatments due to continual research and a decrease in cigarette smoking among men.  A wider and earlier screening for colon, prostate and breast cancer among both men and women is particularly significant.  

Relay For Life is an awesome event, an uplifting experience.  I recommend the program to everyone, particularly if you, your loved ones or close friends have an experience with cancer.  Look for the program the last weekend in June each year in Rohnert Park-Cotati.  Enjoy life and keep smiling.

George Malkemus has a Family and Cosmetic Dental Practice in Rohnert Park at 2 Padre Parkway, Suite 200. Call 585-8595, or email info@ malkemusdds.com.  Visit Dr. Malkemus’ Web site at www.malkemusdds.com. 

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