“I love the excitement and feeling of this crowd,” event chair Laura Gonzalez said as she welcomed cancer survivors, their support givers, and other participants Saturday morning at Cerrito Vista Park. She added, “Each of us has a reason to relay.”
The presentations marked the opening of the 24-hour American Cancer Society event, which ends at 10 a.m. today, Sunday, and serves several purposes: raising funds and awareness, celebrating those who have survived cancer and remembering those lost.
In his remarks to the crowd, Mayor Bill Jones called it “one of the finest 24 hours we’ll have in the city all year.” Jones said his mother, aunt, and mother-in-law who had cancer have all passed on. More recently his sister was diagnosed but, he said, it was detected early and she is “well on the way to a full recovery.” Jones said he feels that was possible because of the awareness that goes along with fund-raising, as well as the research it supports.
Jones was scheduled to walk for his team from midnight to 1 a.m. The relay portion of the event involves members of each team taking turns maintaining a continuous walk around the circuit at the park.
Gonzalez then introduced friend Dawn Curtis, who was responsible for getting Gonzalez involved in Relay for Life. Curtis said she is a three-year survivor of stage III breast cancer. Curtis recalled being called back into Kaiser hospital for additional tests after getting a mammogram. “After the ninth picture I started crying,” said Curtis, explaining that at that point she knew something must be wrong. She described the biopsy that followed as extremely painful and then hearing “those terrifying words: You have breast cancer and you’ll need a mastectomy.”
She told of setting aside other plans, undergoing chemotherapy, having her hair fall out as she combed it, and ultimately deciding to shave her head and forgo a wig. But she also remembered having wonderful doctors and a family that was there for her.
“All their support meant the world to me,” she said.
“I believe my survival is part of a greater plan and part of that plan is sharing my story with you,” she said. “I will never stop relaying. I am taking a stand against cancer.” Curtis ended by declaring herself a survivor to the cheers of the gathered crowd.
Gonzalez credited Curtis along with others such as Tamiko Escalante with making the revival of El Cerrito’s Relay for Life happen. The relay was held at El Cerrito High from 2000 to 2004 before it was displaced by the demolition of the old campus and construction of a new one.
Recalling her first relay in 2010, Gonzalez said, “It was the best experience of my life."
Following the introductory remarks and a performance of Katy Perry’s Firework by Caitlyn Openshaw, cancer survivors in purple T-shirts made their way around the track for the customary first lap. Linda Pereira of San Pablo, who was diagnosed with cancer three months ago, made the trip carried by El Cerrito Police Explorer Scouts, first by Eddie Perales and Brandon Bushby, then by Dane Wockner and Cody Hilleary.
Family members and other caregivers were invited to join the survivors for the next lap, and soon it was time for team members to settle into taking turns walking or running the track in an effort to keep someone from each team on the track throughout the 24-hour event.
Lining the track were booths for each team, which are encouraged to select a theme and decorate their booth accordingly. One focused on breast cancer, for example, and another on protecting against the damaging rays of the sun. had strings of letters spelling “Happy Birthday,” a reference to surviving to enjoy many more birthdays as well as celebrating every day to its fullest.
Teams also carried specially decorated batons. The El Cerrito Police Department “Handcuff Cancer” team had a baton with a pair of handcuffs dangling from the end.
Fund-raising for the effort is multi-prong, with related fundraisers well before and after the event, an online component, and fundraising at the booths the day of the event such as food sales and a silent auction. Last year’s event raised $35,000.
According to the American Cancer Society Relay for Life website, more than 3.5 million people in 5,000 communities in the United States, along with additional communities in 20 other countries, participate each year in Relay for Life.