WEST ORANGE, NJ — Approximately 450 people gathered at West Orange High School for the township’s annual Relay for Life event from May 19 to 20, where they intermittently walked around a track all night to gain insight into the physical discomfort cancer patients suffer, while also raising money for the American Cancer Society.
Event organizer Alex Baron said this year’s participants raised roughly $36,000 as of press time May 23, close to his goal of $50,000. Residents still have time to reach that target, as the West Orange Relay website will continue to collect donations through Aug. 31.
But even if that benchmark is not reached, Baron said he is nonetheless proud to have put on another successful Relay. Having overcome testicular cancer as a teen, the organizer said he knows firsthand how meaningful it is to come together with those who have been through the same harrowing experience, and with those who simply wish to lend their support. He said he is happy to perpetuate the event’s message that cancer survivors and patients are not alone.
“It shows them that their community is behind them,” Baron told the West Orange Chronicle prior to kicking off the event. “The event shows them that the community cares.”
Baron also pointed out that the fundraising each participating team conducts as part of the Relay has a significant impact on the work of the ACS. Deemed the largest fundraiser in history, the global Relay for Life has raised more than $5 billion for the society since its first event in 1986, with $1.4 million coming from West Orange alone. That money benefits the cancer organization’s longstanding commitment to funding cancer research; ACS has invested more than $4.3 billion since 1946, and funded nearly $3.4 million in current New Jersey cancer research grants. Thanks in part to breakthroughs brought about by that research, the cancer death rate declined by 25 percent between 1991 and 2014, meaning there were more than 2.1 million fewer deaths.
Additionally, the monies raised fund the many ACS programs helping cancer patients. These include the initiatives that provided more than 1,200 nights of free and reduced-cost lodging to New Jersey cancer patients and more than 2,700 rides so that cancer sufferers in the state can obtain transportation to their treatments. It also covers the society’s National Cancer Information Center, which provides 24/7 access to cancer information specialists.
Even with these successes and resources, the ACS still faces an uphill battle. According to the society’s statistics, approximately 1,688,780 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2017 — including 51,680 in New Jersey — and roughly 600,920 Americans are expected to die of the disease this year.
Considering those statistics, it is no wonder why Relay for Life has developed a loyal following in West Orange. Lynn Westwood, the team captain for Kathy’s Buds, has participated in almost every Relay since the fundraiser started in West Orange. Yet no matter how many times she attends, Westwood said the event is always a powerful way to honor those who have succumbed to cancer. Many people keep their emotions in check on a daily basis, she said, but the Relay provides a chance to let go and express how one truly feels.
And if anyone doubts how fulfilling Relay for Life can be, Westwood said all one has to do is try it to be made a believer.
“If you get them out here and they experience it, they’re bound to come back the next year,” Westwood told the Chronicle during Relay. “The first time I ever came it was amazing.”
Ida Meehan, captain of Team Inspiration, also said that Relay for Life has never ceased to move her in the 10 years she has participated. Though walking all night is always physically exhausting, Meehan told the Chronicle she goes through an emotional wringer every year. She said she typically alternates between laughing and crying as she befriends fellow participants and hears their stories.
That engagement is exactly why Meehan keeps coming back. Anyone can donate money to the ACS, she said, but actually interacting with cancer survivors allows for a more personal connection to the cause.
“When you come out here and you see the faces of these survivors — and they’re ranging from little kids to grandparents — and you’re with them, you put a face to those names,” Meehan said at Relay. “You see the hope in these people. They’re fighting this fight. So when you’re in the middle of that, it changes the way you see the whole thing.”
Beverly Eugene, a fellow member of Team Inspiration, agreed that being part of Relay for Life leaves an indelible mark on people. Eugene said she always comes away feeling hopeful that a cure can be found one day. On top of that, she said the experience lets her better empathize with what cancer patients experience.
“It sort of helps you put things in perspective because it’s supposed to be like 12 hours in the life of a patient,” Eugene told the Chronicle at the event, adding that she keeps in mind that the discomfort participants feel in walking all night is nothing compared to the pain cancer sufferers experience each day. “It sort of helps you push through at 3 in the morning.”
Relay for Life certainly has an effect on cancer survivors, as well. When Sharon Rondinella was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer — an aggressive form of the disease that can be challenging to treat — she focused on what she needed to do to get well, such as surgery and chemotherapy. It was only after everything was done that she was hit with the full emotional weight of what she had been through. Seven years later, Rondinella said she does not think too much about her experience and generally stays away from events such as Relay to avoid bringing up bad memories.
But this year the students at Seton Hall Preparatory School, where she works as a campus minister, were so enthusiastic about raising money for the initiative that Rondinella agreed to attend the event as their chaperone. And she is glad she did.
“When you’re gathered with other people, it helps me to realize I should have greater respect for what I went through,” Rondinella told the Chronicle during the event. “It’s kind of a proud moment.”
Rondinella added that she was pleased her students were able to take part in the event after their Pirates Against Cancer team raised approximately $1,500. They were not the only group of young people in attendance, though. In fact, several of the teams were comprised largely of WOHS students who were able to raise thousands of dollars through efforts including bake sales and grocery bagging.
WOHS Principal Hayden Moore was definitely proud of that fact. Moore, who was on hand to give a speech during the opening ceremony, told the Chronicle that cancer is an epidemic that affects everyone in some way. It is important that young people learn the toll it takes, he said, so they can be inspired to put an end to the disease. Since they are the future, he said they are in the best position to either find a cure or continue raising money for one.
At the same time, Moore said, the simple fact that so many WOHS students were willing to participate in Relay speaks volumes of their character, and shows that local youth are unselfish and care about what happens to others. And the principal hopes they remain that way long after they graduate.
“If our students take time out to care about things that plague us as a human race, then I feel like we’ve done our job,” Moore said an interview prior to take the stage. “(WOHS) is more than just math, English, geometry. It’s about work ethic, humanity, unity, community.”
Residents of all ages will soon have the chance to join in the next Relay for Life — Baron said he will start planning the 2018 edition soon after fundraising for 2017’s event ends in August. Marian Corbin, who sold decorated hats and other items to raise funds at this year’s Relay, encouraged anyone interested to get involved considering all the good it does. For one, Corbin said it is a chance to meet great people while also raising money to help an excellent cause. Plus, she said, the research funded might prove fortuitous in the future.
“You never know — it might hit home,” Corbin said told the Chronicle at Relay. “You never know when you might need help.”
To donate to West Orange Relay for Life, visit http://main.acsevents.org/site/TR/RelayForLife/RFLCY17EA?pg=entry&fr_id=79193.
Photos by Sean Quinn