BY TERRY CHAPMAN
O’FALLON – On a hot and humid summer day, the O’Fallon community rallied in an effort to fight a disease that has affected the lives of most everyone in the world.
The Relay for Life has been a staple in town for several years. The Relay raises thousands of dollars in an effort to combat and eventually cure cancer. The event last Saturday raised $12,691.59, bringing the event total to $54,906.59. Event organizers set a fundraising goal of $63,000. Donations are still being accepted online.
Twenty-eight teams registered to walk around the track at O’Fallon Township High School last Saturday. Those teams were made up of 233 participants, including 49 cancer survivors.
The Relay opens with a Survivors Lap, where cancer survivors take a lap around the track to the applause of those around them. Karen Zawasky, a survivor and a current cancer fighter, wants to let people know that what they’re doing really does make a difference.
“I’ve been involved with the Relay for 15 years. I started when my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer and that’s the reason I relay,” said Zawasky. “In 2011, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. I’ve never smoked, I was 51, but I had a gene mutation. I had chemo, radiation, I had my left lung removed. I was supposedly cancer free until last April when I started having trouble swallowing. They discovered that I had a tumor that was pressing on my esophagus. They shrunk the tumor. Now I’m on oral chemo, and as long as it works, I’ll be on it for the rest of my life.”
When told she is a fighter, she responds with a smile, saying “Never give up. Have a good attitude. I’m telling you, when you go to have your treatments you see people, people who are afraid, sad, and all that stuff. The people who do the best are the people who push ahead every day.” She refers to the number of treatments, “that’s number 10, that’s number 11. Just push through it.”
To Zawasky, this event means more to her than anybody can ever imagine. She has gained a unique perspective on the Relay, as she has experienced it both as a cancer advocate, and a cancer survivor.
“When I first started the Relay, it meant something different to me than it does now. Today, when I walked that survivor lap and I saw all of those people clapping, it gives me chills. People will come out and help somebody like me. I don’t consider myself anybody special. It’s really wonderful, and I know that it’s making a difference. I have my treatments in St. Louis, and they have so many new immunotherapy drugs, and that’s one of the things that I’m on, and they are really making strides. What they need is money for research, and this event really helps with that.”
Zawasky is one of many survivors to come out to the event, but others helped in many ways as well.
Yolanda Ellison is the team captain of the Relay for Life Surface Deployment and Distribution Command Team, which is the number one fundraising team from of Scott Air Force Base. The team champions both military and civilians. Ellison moved here in 2010 and is excited to see that the community has so much interest.
“In the military, people come and go, but our organization never skips a beat. Kudos to Scott Air Force Base and the amount of representation we have out here,” said Ellison.
The Relay serves as a way to help the community unite against an all too common affliction.
“We all support it because in one way or another, we’ve all been affected by cancer,” Ellison said. “I got into Relay for Life because I was a runner and I loved to run. In 2007, it got personal. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed that year. It means so much more to me.That’s why we raise the money. I’m very optimistic in that I know that God will help us find a cure for cancer one day.”
Ellison was overjoyed with the incredible turnout at this year’s event.
“I’m touched. As you can see, the heat is out today but it did not stop us. I think every step that we make towards finding a cure is positive. Seeing all of these people out here just touches me and so many more. We’re just one step closer to finding a cure.
Not long after the sun sets, decorated bags are placed along the edge of the track, lit by glow sticks, and symbolize those loved ones that have passed on or those that are currently struggling with cancer. The Luminaria ceremony is a touching and emotional moment for many Relay attendees.
If you are interested in donating to the Relay for Life, visit www.relayforlife.org/ofallonil until August 31st to help the team reach their goal.