By Alice E. Gerard
Cancer is like a large bird of prey that carries victims away in its talons.
It is always present. There are few who are not under the shadow of this enemy.
Despite that, there is hope. Hope for a cure. Hope for the survival of oneself, of friends, and of family. Hope for a brighter future, for a world where cancer has been defeated.
At Grand Island's annual Relay For Life, which began at 4 p.m., May 30, cancer survivors were honored, loved and supported. Those who lost their battle were remembered.
Becky Sommer-Stufkosky said that Relay is about memory as much as it is about raising money for the American Cancer Society to find a cure for cancer. "It's sad because of why we are here, but we are celebrating the lives of those we love. I don't ever want to forget them." She talked about how cancer had taken away many members of her family. Just two family members diagnosed with cancer survived: Becky's husband, Rich Stufkosky, and Becky's daughter, Alicia Sommer.
Becky said of family and friends who had passed away: "I really feel that they are with us (at Relay For Life). I feel that they are standing beside us on the track, and they are still fighting. It (the cure) didn't happen for them."
Dan McBride was one of those loved ones whose life was being celebrated. The 2009 honorary survivor and former co-captain of the Record Breakers Featuring the Dixie Chix died Feb. 1.
McBride was very close to Sommer-Stufkosky's family, becoming like a second father to her children. In addition, his mother, Dorothy McBride, had been Alicia's Girl Scout leader.
In 2008, I interviewed Dan McBride about his battle with stage four mantle cell lymphoma. He said that, shortly before the 2006 October Surprise storm, he underwent a bone marrow transplant at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. "Ninety-five percent of my bone marrow was cancer."
Stufkosky described McBride as upbeat and enthusiastic. "People loved his personality and the way he treated people. He made you feel special."
I, too, came to Relay For Life to remember loved ones lost to cancer. As I walked around the track, I carried the memory of my father, Roy Gerard, with me. My father, an economist who could add and subtract in his head faster than a calculator, was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. He died a year later at the age of 92.
I walked around the track and visited booths. I talked with Jeanne Percival, who also lost her father to cancer in 2012. The captain of Huth's Heroes team, Percival was surrounded by children spinning a Wheel of Fortune-type wheel in an attempt to win a prize. "They are spinning the wheel of the world to earn prizes from different countries of the world. It's been fun," Percival said. She handed a rubber bracelet to a boy as his prize.
Jeanne Percival, captain of Huth's Heroes Relay For Life team, had a spinning prize wheel to raise money. (Photo by Alice Gerard)
At another booth, a group of high school students, members of Interact Club, were selling cupcakes. Their team, titled "Interact for a Cure," participates in Relay For Life every year. "We sold suns and moon cards," said senior Devon Perri. In addition to the cupcakes, the team sold "make your own ice cream sundaes."
At another tent, I met Debbie and her mother Sue, a cancer survivor. Their team is called Sisters of Strength. They were selling cupcakes. Debbie said that cancer has affected her entire family, including "my aunt, my mom, and my grandma. That is why we do it."
As clouds gathered in the darkening skies and as the luminaria honoring both those who survived cancer and those who succumbed to it were lit, Casey Dahlstrom, a cancer survivor and publicity chair of Relay For Life, said, "The weather tried to threaten us today but the Grand Island Relay showed up in full force."
As darkness fell, all gathered around the stage to hear Jenna Stufkosky, a student at the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York in Potsdam, sing "Danny Boy" as a tribute to Dan McBride. She was accompanied by Natalie Baldasserre playing the flute. The bagpipers and drummers from the City of Thorold Pipe Band (Ontario) then began playing their instruments as they marched slowly around the track, followed by walkers. After they returned to the area around the stage, they played "Amazing Grace" before leaving.
After the emotional renditions of "Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace," it was time for nighttime activities. A lip sync royale battle was set for the main stage, and a painting activity, with Pinot's Palette, was scheduled for the survivors' tent. I went to paint with about 40 other people, both youth and adults. An instructor led us through the painting process, one step at a time.
As we painted purple backgrounds, the rain started. We added dandelions to our paintings as the rain turned into a deluge. As we painted the word "hope" on our pictures, water ran under the tent and onto the floor. Becky told me, "Everyone has hope to live a long time, to see their children grow up, or for many things. It is inside of you. I can have hope radiate from me onto others. I will never give in to not believing in hope. Hope is the eternal light that's inside of me."
McBride had told me in 2008 that he was able to keep going because he had hopes of seeing his daughter Rachael, then 18, and his son Nicholas, then 20, graduate and get married and give him grandchildren. Before Dan died, he was able to realize those hopes. His survivors included his son and his son's wife Kimberly, his daughter, and three grandchildren, Neveah, Ryan, and Olivia.
It was night and it was raining, but the eternal light of hope shone through the darkness.
Dahlstrom said that hope was reflected in "the way all residents come together for one single fight. It makes fighting cancer 10 times easier and 100 times more rewarding."
When we finished painting at about 12:30 a.m., it was announced that Relay For Life would end hours before its scheduled closing ceremony at 6 a.m., Sunday. Someone had spotted a bolt of lightning. It was time for everyone to go home. The rain continued. It felt as if the sky was weeping for the people who had been carried away by that large bird of prey called cancer.
After Relay ended, I took my painting that reminded me that there is always hope, walked by the luminaria that had been flattened by the rainfall, and went home.
"It was another wonderful event that shows Grand Island's commitment to finding a cure to cancer," said Percival.
"I really believe that we are making a difference. We just have to keep going," said Sommer-Stufkosky.