WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange hosted its 12th successful Relay for Life at West Orange High School, from May 20 to May 21, with more than 300 people intermittently walking around a track all night in order to raise funds for the American Cancer Society and provide some insight into the physical discomfort cancer patients experience 24 hours a day.
A total of 352 participants representing 35 teams collected $37,967.97 for the township’s 2016 edition of the fundraiser as of press time May 24. And residents still have time to help the Relay meet its goal of $45,000, as its website will continue to collect donations through Aug. 31.
But even if that benchmark is not reached, event organizer Lisa Renwick said she is nonetheless appreciative of the town’s support. With so many causes to which people could donate, Renwick said it is “awesome” that residents are still willing to contribute to the Relay year after year, to the tune of more than $1 million since 2005. Considering how prevalent cancer is, she said every dollar that goes to the ACS is vital.
“I think everybody knows somebody who’s been touched by cancer,” Renwick, who raised the most individually with $5,120 and captained the Roosevelt Rough Riders to this year’s event high of $5,635, told the West Orange Chronicle in a May 20 phone interview. “We’re here to find the cure and eradicate this disease.”
The township knows all too well how common cancer is, having seen several people within the school district afflicted. This year alone a WOHS cheerleader died of a rare form of the disease, while another student, two teachers and another teacher’s young son are all currently suffering from it. They are not alone.
According to ACS statistics, approximately 1,685,210 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2016, while roughly 595,690 Americans are expected to die of the disease this year. Still, the organization is making significant progress. Thanks in part to breakthroughs brought about by ACS-funded research, U.S. cancer rates are down 22 percent since 1991, with more than 1.5 million lives saved.
A key reason for this success is Relay for Life, which has been deemed the largest fundraiser in history. Since launching in 1986, the initiative has raised nearly $5 billion and spread to more than 5,200 communities across 20 countries. All money raised benefits the longstanding ACS commitment to fund cancer research, with the organization investing more than $4.3 billion since 1946 and more than $1 million currently invested in New Jersey research grants alone. It also funds the many ACS programs helping cancer patients, such as initiatives that provided lodging to 480 New Jersey patients and caregivers and offered more than 2,729 rides so that cancer sufferers in New Jersey can get to and from their treatments.
State Sen. Richard Codey, a democrat representing the 27th Legislative District, knows a lot about the work of ACS, having worked with them for 38 years. Codey, whose wife is a breast cancer survivor, told the Chronicle that the ACS is a tremendous resource both for cancer patients looking for the best types of treatment and others hoping to find ways to prevent the disease. The senator said he has been taking aspirin daily for the past year after learning from the organization that it reduces the risk of cancer, especially colorectal, esophageal and stomach cancers.
Seeing so much support for the Relay pleased Codey, who served as the event’s guest speaker. The former governor told the Chronicle that cancer is no longer the death sentence it once was, thanks largely to the efforts of the organization, so it is important that people continue donating to the cause. He added that the Relay event itself is a unique source of comfort to those who have had to deal with the disease.
“It brings the community together, and it brings it together in a way that many other events don’t,” Codey said as the event participants started to circle the track. “The boundaries are none when it comes to cancer. Rich, poor, black, white, male, female — there are no boundaries. It affects people of all backgrounds, all ages, all economic circumstances. (Here) they can get friendly with each other. Survivors can bond with each other. And that’s great.”
The Relay certainly helped Roseanne Bruno, a 13-year survivor of breast cancer. Speaking with the Chronicle before the event, Bruno said having cancer can feel isolating as one comes to terms with the disease. And that can be a difficult process. She recalled having to rely on family and friends for support, bringing them with her to doctor’s appointments so they could take notes while her mind remained in a state of shock.
At the Relay, however, Bruno said there is an easy sense of camaraderie in being around fellow cancer survivors.
“It gives you a chance to meet other people who have been in the same situation as yourself,” Bruno said. “No one is alone. You think when you have cancer that you’re the only one. But this event brings the caregivers and the survivors together.”
Participating in the Relay was also a great experience for Kathy Sayers, who overcame her battle with colon cancer last year after surgery and six months of chemotherapy. Sayers said being diagnosed with the disease was scary, and it took a while after finishing chemo to feel better. But once she did, she said she wanted to find a way to provide hope to other cancer patients still suffering. So she and some friends formed “Kathy’s Buds” for the Relay and, despite starting late in the game, ended up raising $4,862.
Next year, Sayers said she plans to start fundraising earlier to raise even more money. She encouraged others to join in the Relay as well, pointing out that it is very comforting to make a difference.
“It’s just a great event,” she told the Chronicle. “You get satisfaction from knowing that you’re helping a good cause.”
Sayers’ son, Thomas, also benefited from taking part in the initiative. Thomas Sayers said watching his mother deal with cancer was a “rough experience,” and every week brought new challenges. But he always remained positive and — according to his mother — provided a key source of support by taking her to appointments and chemo sessions. Now that the experience is finished, Thomas Sayers said he appreciated the chance to be with other people who know what it is like to care for people with cancer.
“It’s great to be around them,” Thomas Sayers told the Chronicle. “You feel like you can connect with them and they can connect with you. So it’s awesome.”
The cancer survivors and caregivers in attendance were honored with their own laps around the track to kick off the Relay. But one did not have to be so directly affected to participate in the event.
WOHS student Mattison Touzeau has been taking part in Relay for Life during the past four years, ever since being impressed by an event she attended with a friend. This year Touzeau captained a team for the first time, forming the “Holy Walkamolies” with 33 fellow students to collect $2,637.47 through individual fundraising and a schoolwide dodgeball tournament. It was a lot of additional effort, but she said it was all worth it to know that she was helping others.
While one might assume that young people may not be thinking about cancer, Touzeau said the Relay has always been an event that students are willing to support. But with the tragedies affecting the school district this year, she said the event was especially meaningful.
“I definitely think a lot more people understand how deeply it affects so many of us,” Touzeau told the Chronicle. “Many people on my team have personally been affected.”
Sue Rexford has also been affected by cancer — her husband is a survivor. As a result, Rexford said it has been important to her family to support Relay for Life so it can do its part to help find a cure for others. But that is not the only way the initiative is beneficial. She pointed out that it is simply fun sharing such a unique experience with others.
“It’s really cool to be out all night long,” Rexford told the Chronicle while selling jewelry and baked goods for her team the Cancer Kickers. “By the morning you know all these new people and there are friends that you’ve met last year and you know other teams.”
The fact that so many people are willing to participate and bond for a good cause speaks to the type of community West Orange is, according to Councilman Jerry Guarino. Guarino, a longtime Relay supporter, said he knows the residents of the township always go out of their way to help others. In return an event like Relay for Life brings the already tight-knit community even closer together, he said.
Yet for all the support it receives, Guarino said the Relay can always use additional participants. Even if people do not want to stay overnight, he said there are plenty of opportunities to help with the event’s organization. And he urged all interested residents to consider joining in next year.
“People need to come out and help,” Guarino told the Chronicle while volunteering at the registration desk. “Sometimes just writing a check or giving money doesn’t do it.”
To learn more about Relay for Life and to donate to the West Orange event, visit http://main.acsevents.org/site/TR?fr_id=73372&pg=teamlist.
Photos by Sean Quinn