Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back

The personal stories behind Relay for Life

Cera Sylar

Cera Sylar

Thousands gathered in Mariucci Arena for the University of Minnesota’s Relay for Life on April 17 to light candles, share stories, and walk in remembrance of lost loved ones.  The University’s Relay is the largest in the Midwest and the 8th largest in the entire nation, and is planned and hosted by the student group Colleges Against Cancer. Each year, Relay and Colleges Against Cancer raises over $100,000 dollars for cancer research and programs.

As remarkable as that number is, what’s really special about this event is the meaning that it carries for the numerous participants. One in three people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lives, and everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer.

Eric Noll, a junior studying genetics, cell biology, and development with plans to apply to medical school, is the current vice president of Colleges Against Cancer. But his involvement in Relay for Life predates his college experience: when he was in seventh grade, his mother was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer.

“We were fortunate enough that she was referred to Mayo Clinic in Rochester where she had a great team of surgeons and oncologists,” Noll said.

His mother has been cancer-free for seven years, but she is not the only member of his family to have gone through that struggle. Noll’s grandmother is also a breast cancer survivor, and his great aunt has recently been diagnosed. The evident genetic predisposition to cancer in his family is something with which Noll is concerned.

“There’s always the startling reality that if I ever have children, and if one of them was a girl, god forbid she gets breast cancer.”

Because of this, Noll is particularly interested in educating college students on healthy behaviors to reduce the likelihood of cancer onset. Colleges Against Cancer works in this capacity as well.

“A big part of our group is the mission and advocacy factor and informing the campus about cancer prevention,” said Nate Wong, a senior studying graphic design and the current president of Colleges Against Cancer.

The University’s Relay is the largest in the Midwest and the 8th largest in the entire nation.

Their cleverly named events to promote healthier behaviors include the Saving Second Base 5K for breast cancer awareness, the Spike Out Skin Cancer volleyball tournament, and the Protect Your Balls dodgeball tournament for prostate cancer.

Colleges Against Cancer’s biggest and most anticipated event each year is Relay for Life, or as the group advertises it, “The one-night stand you won’t forget.” The preparation for this event begins essentially right after the previous one ends. The venue has to be chosen, the advertisements made, and the entertainment booked. This year’s Relay featured numerous student group acts including a capella groups, the marching band, and a few local bands.

While all of these activities are great, Wong said his favorite part of the event is the luminaria ceremony.  A much more solemn aspect of Relay for Life, the luminaria ceremony gathers participants to honor those lost in the battle against cancer. A survivor comes to speak, or someone on a survivor’s behalf, and then the lights are dimmed and luminaria bags containing candles that display pictures of lost loved ones are lit.  The ceremony also includes music, and a slideshow with pictures.

“It’s what gets people to come back every single year,” Noll said. “It gets you to remember why you’re doing it.  But then it’s back to fun and back to fighting back.”

And fight back they do. Teams register with the American Cancer Society and can continue to fundraise well into August, long after the Relay for Life event ends.  The money raised is then given to the American Cancer Society to help fund research and recovery programs for cancer patients.

“It’s what gets people to come back every single year,” Noll said. “It gets you to remember why you’re doing it.”

One of the recovery programs is Hope Lodge, located right outside of stadium village. Hope Lodge is a place where patients and their families can stay while they are receiving cancer treatment. Others include Road to Recovery, a program where volunteers drive patients to their treatment, and Look Good Feel Better, a campaign to help men and women undergoing changes in appearance due to treatment feel good about themselves.

But the main goal of Relay for Life’s mission is to learn how to stop and prevent cancer, which is why a great amount of the money raised goes to research. In Minnesota alone, the American Cancer Society invests $7.5 million for research to be done. Of that $7.5 million, $3.3 million goes directly to the University and is used to fund research at centers on campus. Knowing that actions are being taken, especially right here at our school, is a large part of what refuels the excitement each year.

“It is primarily about celebrating, remembering, and fighting back,” Wong said. Once again, Relay for Life saw Wong and Noll, and thousands of others with their own stories, turn up in order to celebrate the progress made, remember the lives lost, and continue the fight to end cancer for good.