Relay fetes heroes and survivors of cancer
5-year-old Jayden Zentner the guest of honor at Relay For Life in Rohnert Park
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By Mira Brody  June 27, 2014 12:00 am

Visitors at the Relay for Life this past Saturday in Rohnert Park were not greeted with a handshake and formal introduction, but a hug and a story.

The 24-hour relay took place at Sonoma Mountain Village from 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday, and included everyone’s favorite Luminaria Ceremony, and a Superhero Ceremony for Jayden Zentner, a 5-year-old who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and has battled through 100 chemotherapy treatments.

Jayden’s mother, Melissa Zentner, a Petaluma native, is making it her goal to spread the word about childhood cancer, as children currently only receive 4 percent of cancer research funding. Jayden is doing well and has his own Facebook page called “Jayden’s Journey.” Jayden’s Journey is a perfect representation of what Relay for Life is about – raising awareness while celebrating life and those remembered.

“I just love the togetherness of everybody – every one comes together for this one reason and it makes it seem not as bad,” says Star Delucca, who joined her family from Orange County to walk for their team, The Tootsie Pops. “We’re here for something so awful, but it’s such a happy day.” 

Delucca is a breast cancer survivor and also lost her father to lung cancer just last December.

No one is immune to cancer, a thought that is prevalent among those present; everyone there has been affected in some way, and they gather to support one another during their 24 hours of walking. The relay is a community, with lighted, welcoming tents staggered along the track circle, and each tent has their own story to tell.

Having participated in relays all over Sonoma County, Linda Adams refers to herself as a “Relay Junkie,” and she continues her walking for her son Dan, who passed from skin cancer at age 23, nearly 10 years ago. Still, his family, even his girlfriend at the time, who is now grown with a husband and two children, come together every year to form “Dan’s Team,” preserving his memory and spreading the word about melanoma.

“The Luminaria Ceremony is just amazing,” says Adams, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago. “When you see a photo up there that says they are a 37-year breast cancer survivor…it really gives you a lot of hope.”

Adams says it has a lot to do with storytelling and the empowerment that comes from a community of those who have lost loved ones to a similar cause. Her first relay was back in 2005, right after Dan passed away, and she was surprised at the amount of people who came to help raise money for her team. She jokes that she got more out of that rely than she did out of a year of counseling.

The Luminaria, which takes place after dark and consists of glowing bags to represent the memory of those gone, can now be preserved for longer usage, thanks to Robbie Willin and her late father, Don Cabrall.

“I have a brother who’s a rocket scientist, a brother who’s an engineer and a father who had to keep his mind busy during his treatments,” she says. “So this is what we came up with.”

The final product, which has been in the works for four years, is a mason jar with decorative etchings on the sides and a solar-powered light. Cabrall, who passed away from prostate cancer, started the design to keep his mind busy during his chemotherapy treatments. The company, who wants to buy the patent from them, promises to donate a portion of sales to Relay for Life.

“One of these years, there’s going to be no memorial screen,” says Willin confidently.

“My favorite part is when I see somebody have a moment,” says Ruth Fitzsimmons, who has been relaying for seven years. “When they suddenly get a sense of hope or relief or they’re being supported. It’s those kind of connections that just give you goose bumps; you feel a sense of hope and you remember: this is why I do this.”

“Cancer never sleeps,” says Adams. “And as a breast cancer survivor, it really doesn’t. You have insomnia, or you’re up getting sick…it doesn’t stop just because it’s dark out.”

Cancer never sleeps and neither do the 24-hour relay participants as they circle around those who have supported them, and continue to support them for relays to come.

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