Making the Rounds Relays Raise Critical Funds for Cancer Research, Education, and Advocacy

Beginning in April and continuing through June, high school and college tracks across the region have played host to hundreds of walkers – some strolling the track at all hours of the night and into the early morning.

Those 3 a.m. walks are just one part of a major, national phenomenon that has gained some steam in recent years.

Called Relays for Life, the events benefit the American Cancer Society (ACS) and charge individuals and groups with raising funds for cancer research, education, and advocacy, by garnering pledges for each hour walked at a relay site in a 24-hour period.

The Relay for Life fundraising model was first introduced in May 1985, and has since grown to become the most successful national fundraiser.

In 2005, 3 million people participated in a relay, including more than 500,000 cancer survivors, who traditionally walk the opening laps. In addition, Relays for Life raised $351 million at more than 4,400 sites throughout the U.S. and nine other countries, as the initiative evolves into a worldwide movement.

On the Homefront

Gina King, spokesman for the ACS’s New England division, said Western Mass. has a particularly active Relay For Life community, which works for several months out of the year to plan relays, raise funds, and organize activities that take place throughout the all-night events.

“In 2005, more than 9,000 area residents participated in a relay and 1,300 cancer survivors walked the opening laps, and the relays raised $1.5 million at eight sites throughout Western Mass.,” she explained, noting that this year, nine relays were held in Western Mass., representing every county in the region.

Franklin County, Hampshire County, Berkshire County Central/South, and Berkshire County North each regularly hold relays on behalf of the local community, however individual cities, businesses, groups of towns, or other organizations may also host the events, which are open to any individual or team. Wilbraham & Monson Academy, the Five Colleges, Greater Holyoke and Chicopee, Greater Springfield, and the Quaboag Valley rounded out the relay schedule in Western Mass. this year. King said once the final tally is announced, the mix of relays in the region is expected to have raised more funds and engaged more participants than ever before.

Darci Woodword of Hatfield, Relay for Life chair for Hampshire County, cited the individual involvement that relays promote as one reason for the events’ success. She said local relays give participants as well as contributors a closer look at where their efforts and their dollars are being applied, more so than donating to a cause through other fundraisers with less active involvement.

“Relay is important because it is a healing, hope providing, supportive event; it goes way beyond the fundraising,” she said. “It brings together a community to recognize, support and celebrate the distance that many have traveled on their own cancer journey, and it shows them that the dollars raised are truly benefiting their family, friends and neighbors.”

Walking the Walk

Those dollars raised during Relay for Life help support ACS research, education, advocacy, and patient services. King explained that funds are applied to very specific areas within those categories, and relay supporters and participants are kept abreast of those investments from year to year.

In the area of research, for example, King said ACS has invested $2.8 billion in cancer research since 1946, and has played a role in almost all the scientific milestones in cancer research including the bone marrow transplant, the Pap test, and drugs like Gleevec and Tamoxifen. Relays also help to finance educational endeavors, and the availability of up-to-date cancer information; as part of that task, cancer specialists from across the nation answered more than 1.2 million phone calls last year on behalf of the ACS, and 33,000 E-mails, all addressing cancer-related questions from patients, loved ones, and caregivers.

ACS advocacy efforts ensure that responsible cancer policies are put in place at the local, state, and federal levels, and patient services are constantly being updated — among other initiatives, King said the Cancer Survivors Network, which allows survivors to share experiences with other survivors and caregivers, has been particularly successful.

“Supportive services and treatments are here for them because of the dedication and effort of each person at relay,” added Woodword.

Indeed, the all-night community events bring together teams of families, friends, religious organizations, neighborhoods, and businesses — all with the same goal.

“Teams of walkers keep a continuous presence on the track throughout the night, walking in shifts,” said King, adding that a full agenda of entertainment is planned, including music, team fund-raising activities, fun theme laps and contests going all night long. Each relay begins with a survivor lap, during which cancer survivors take a victory lap around the track. Survivors and their caregivers are invited to attend a special cancer survivor reception to enjoy the camaraderie and support of others coping with a cancer diagnosis.

And as the sun sets, said King, a candlelight ceremony is also held to honor cancer survivors and remember those who lost the fight against this disease.

All Laced Up

King added that the success of Relay for Life events across Western Mass. has not only helped to raise thousands of dollars, but also awareness of cancer and its effect on individuals, families, and communities.

“The events celebrate the lives of hundreds of local residents who have survived cancer, while offering the hope of finding a cure,” she said. “Dedication, support and hard work are truly making a difference in the lives of cancer patients and their families, and this is truly a community that cares about the fight against cancer and the spirit of survivorship.”