Relay For Life: celebrate, honor and fight back
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By George Malkemus  June 20, 2014 12:00 am

This Saturday, June 21 at 10 a.m. begins the 15th annual Rohnert Park-Cotati Relay For Life event at Sonoma Mountain Village Soccer Field. Relay For Life is so much more than a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. It is a life-changing event that is about community celebrating the lives of people who have battled cancer and survived, remembering loved ones who have lost the battle and thanking the caregivers who have helped them through this stressful process.

Relay For Life is an awesome event…an up-lifting experience! I recommend the program to everyone, particularly if you, your loved ones or close friends have an experience with cancer. If you’re a cancer survivor, come and be celebrated for free. Sign up online or come and sign up Saturday morning at the event.

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

Relay For Life began in May of 1985, when Dr. Gordy Klatt took his first step on a 24-hour marathon around a Tacoma, Wash. track, raising $27,000 for the American Cancer Society. Since then, Relay for Life has become a worldwide movement to end cancer. Each year, more than 3.5 million people in more than 5,000 communities in the U.S. gather to raise much-needed funds and awareness to save lives from cancer. The event has spread to more than 20 other countries and raised more than $3 billion. Our own local Relay for Life has raised more than $1 million since it’s inception in 1989.

The Rohnert Park-Cotati Relay for Life setting is beautiful, situated 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. The event begins with inspirational short speeches, followed by vibrant singing of the National Anthem, and then the walk begins with cancer survivors leading the way.

Three years ago, I had the honor of being a speaker at the event as a cancer survivor. I feel especially lucky to be a survivor leading the first lap. This year, I will be helping the Rotary Club of Rancho Cotati serve barbequed chicken for the event dinner.

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. But others were not so lucky and had sad endings. Three years ago, a life story that stood out for me was that of Lisa Hebert. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Strongly, Lisa had organized a Team Hebert to promote cancer awareness and had wanted so much to be at the Rohnert Park-Cotati event even though she was from Sebastopol. Sadly, she passed away the Tuesday before the event, but she wanted her team to participate anyway. Her husband, two daughters, family and support group friends gathered and camped in her memory and raised more money than any other team at the event that year.

Throughout the event, there is great music, food and activities. One of the highlights each year is the Luminaria ceremony. Luminaria bags are decorated to honor survivors and to remember lost loved 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 Neighborhoods Organized Against Hunger (NOAH) food bank for distribution to Rohnert Park needy families.

Ever year I make 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. His son, Blake, graduated from SSU this year; Blake was only 10 years old when his father passed.

At dark, the luminaria are lit. Thousands of luminaria encompassed the entire perimeter of the park. It is a beautiful, inspirational sight, walking the path and seeing all the names and color designs on the luminaria. Three years ago, a 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 – breathtaking!

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 loved ones and honored survivors.

At 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, the event closes 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 basically 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. 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.

If you’re unable to attend, but have future interest, then look for the program the third weekend in June each year in Rohnert Park-Cotati. The American Cancer Society (ACS) is the nationwide, community-based, voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major heath problem by preventing cancer, saving lives and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, advocacy, and service. Anyone, anywhere can access information and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-ACS-2345 or at

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@ Visit Dr. Malkemus’ website at

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