Ramping up to Relay

After losing my mother, Carrie Carney, to pancreatic cancer in 2010, I participated in a team in the American Cancer Society Relay For Life in 2011, and joined our county organizing committee the next year, 2012. In 2015, I won the Martha Deason Award as our local Relay volunteer of the year.

Yes, my hair is purple.

Relay has become a part of who I am. I strongly believe in the American Cancer Society’s mission of research, advocacy, education, prevention and patient services. Much has been accomplished over the decades, and much remains to be accomplished in the coming years.

Relay is also a fun, joyous event — a festival more than a walk. I’ll explain a little more about it below.

This has been a strange year for Relay in Bedford County. No one stepped up into the role of organizing committee chair this year, and so our Nashville-based ACS staff person, Heather, has been doing things herself that might otherwise be done by a local volunteer. We were late getting started — and I had to miss our first two meetings this year because I was in rehearsals for “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

But in spite of all that, the numbers are actually good — we have more teams than last year, more survivors signed up for our survivor dinner, and so on. And we now have a committee chair for next year, Matt, who will sort of ramp up into that position in the remaining months of this Relay year.

Our Relay event is scheduled for June 8 at Bedford County Agriculture and Education Center. It used to be required that Relay events run overnight, as a symbol of the journey faced by cancer patients through darkness and into light. That requirement was dropped a few years ago, and many events now run 6 p.m. to midnight or noon to midnight. But Bedford County has kept the overnight schedule, and I love that. Our relay runs 6 p.m. on Friday through 6 a.m. Saturday. Of course, the main hours for public attendance — not registered walkers, but visitors enjoying the festival atmosphere, the concessions, and special events like the luminaria ceremony — are still the prime time hours on Friday night. After midnight, the people who remain at the event are registered walkers and team members — and I like that. It makes you feel like you share a sort of special bond.

If you aren’t familiar with Relay, here’s a brief overview. Anyone can form a Relay For Life team. There are workplace-based teams, church-based teams, neighborhood teams, or teams in honor or memory of a cancer patient. Anything goes. A team participated in Relay in several different ways:

  • Most teams do fund-raising outside of the Relay event, and some of our more active teams raise money year-round. Teams can raise money collectively, but there’s also a mechanism for people to raise money individually. For example, if you’re writing a blog post about Relay, you can shamelessly ask your readers to contribute. Teams can also raise money by selling the personalized luminaria which ring the track on Relay night. Buying a luminaria is a way to remember someone we’ve lost to cancer, or a way to honor a cancer survivor.
  • Any Relay event is built around a walking track. Teams agree, during the Relay event, to have at least one person on the track at any given moment. They can divide that up any way they like. We don’t care about the schedule, only that there’s someone from your team on the track at any given time.
  • Each team has its own spot on the Relay track, called a “camp site.” Obviously, it’s a hangout for team members who aren’t on the track at any given moment, but it’s also a concession stand. The team sells food, souvenirs, or an activity (photo booth, bouncy house, etc.).

Throughout the event, there are special activities and traditions. Every Relay event begins with the survivor lap. All of the cancer survivors in attendance, many of them wearing purple “Survivor” T-shirts provided by Relay, take the ceremonial first lap of the track. The survivor lap is followed by the caregiver lap — anyone who has served as a caregiver for a cancer patient, whether as a friend, family member or medical professional, is invited for the second lap.

At some point after dark, every Relay has a luminaria ceremony. As I mentioned above, luminaria are sold in advance, and on the night of the event. If you buy a luminaria in person, either during the event or from a registered participant in advance of the event, you can personalize it; if you order it online, it will be personalized for you. Here’s a bag I bought for my mother in 2016:

During the luminaria ceremony, the electric lights are turned off and the track is lit only by the luminaria (and related items, such as torches). There is usually some sort of special reading or musical performance, and at our local Relay there’s a release of LED-lit balloons.

For an overnight event like ours, we have games and activities during the wee hours to keep everyone’s energy and spirits up.

Here’s my video from last year’s event, which should give you some of the flavor:

It is not too late for you to form or join a team. If you’re reading this from somewhere other than Bedford County, you can find out information for your local relay at http://relayforlife.org. If you’re here, our site is http://relayforlife.org/bedfordtn. If you’re not in a position to join or form a team, please consider donating towards my participation, at http://main.acsevents.org/goto/johnicarney.

Our Relay motto is “Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.” I have loved that phrase ever since I first saw it in 2011. That’s what we do; we celebrate survivors and caregivers and the progress ACS has made. We remember those whom we have lost to cancer. And we raise money for the important work of fighting the various diseases known as cancer.

Please join us in this worthy effort.