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Island of Hope: Survivor on a mission for Relay

by jmaloni
Fri, May 11th 2012 06:00 pm
New Islanders Rita and John Thurnherr have joined the Grand Island Relay For Life. Rita holds the couple's dog, Hope.
New Islanders Rita and John Thurnherr have joined the Grand Island Relay For Life. Rita holds the couple's dog, Hope.

by Larry Austin

When cancer survivor Rita Thurnherr raises money for the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life, she reminds sponsors and donors about the impact that their donations make. It's standing right in front of them.

"I ask people for donations and I let them know if it wasn't for them, I would not be a survivor," she said. "I survive because people do Relay and they care about survivors."

Thurnherr credits four things for her near miraculous survival from lung cancer: "God. Our family. Friends. And Relay." Since 2007, she's made giving back to Relay her mission and her purpose in life. Rita and her husband John have joined the Grand Island Relay For Life Committee, and are raising money with the Mallwitz Purple Cancer Crew for the June 8 and 9 event on the Island. Relay "makes me stop thinking about me having cancer, what I went through. I don't want other people to go through what I went through. I want to Relay so other people never get cancer."

Thurnherr survived three major operations in nine months, but has displayed an indomitable spirit that has made her husband John call her "a force to be reckoned with."

Originally from Western New York, the couple moved to Florida when John retired in 2000. She was diagnosed in 2007 with lung cancer, and in June of that year her Florida doctor took out her lower lobe, only to realize too late that her scan was misread, and the cancer was in her upper lobe.

"It was pretty devastating," John said. "That's one of the biggest reasons why we came back up here."

Other Florida hospitals then refused to operate on her, fearing she would die. Rita travelled to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 2008, and the rest of her lung was removed in a 10-hour operation to fix damage from the first operation. A blood infection followed, and she was hospitalized. After three major surgeries in nine months, she couldn't work, and the couple lost their house. That's when the Relay For Life of Florida entered their lives.

Rita was in the hospital the night of her first Relay in Florida, but "walked" a lap with other survivors on the track.

"For the Survivor Walk, they called me (from the track) on the telephone in the hospital," she said.

Just three weeks after one of her operations, Rita walked in a 5K fundraiser.

"The full 5K," John said. "They kept telling her, 'We can cut through here and cut off that back loop,' and she said, 'Nope.' We were one of the first groups off, but we were the last ones in."

She returned to WNY every three months to get treatment at a leukemia clinic. They returned to the area permanently in February of 2011, settled on the Island in December of that year, and have since joined the GI Relay.

"Since December, we have just been overwhelmed with the acceptance and the love and the people here on Grand Island that just keep us going," Rita said.

That GI's Relay is passing the $1 million mark in money raised for the American Cancer Society during its 10-year run on the Island is "overwhelming for this small community, to come together and do what they do," Rita said.

Relays in NY and Florida have a common thread in supporting for survivors, Rita said.

"We've been to Niagara Falls Relay, Florida Relay and the Grand Island Relay, and Relay has opened their arms to us everywhere that we went to. Without Relay, you were alone in a situation," Rita said.

Rita said she hasn't been alone since joining Relay, and finds peace even in the times when it's hard to forget that a doctor in Florida took part of her lung, her life and her home.

"And Relay gave me back my life," she said. "I have my family here in Buffalo, but Relay is also my family."

The Grand Island Relay For Life for the American Cancer Society will take place June 8 and 9 at the Grand Island High School track.

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