Circle of friends

All you had to do was drive by the Willmar Middle School Friday afternoon or evening to see that something big was happening.

It’s hard not to catch the excitement as the Kandiyohi County Relay for Life takes visible shape: the tents, the signs, the volunteers, the paper luminaries lining the track, the party atmosphere. The goal of the American Cancer Society was to raise $150,000 at the event this year to support cancer research and services for patients.

Money is tangible. So are volunteers. You can see them and count them and measure their impact. Without them, the Relay for Life wouldn’t happen.

When you really think about it, though, the value of the Relay for Life can’t be quantified in numbers. More than any other event I can think of, it’s a way for diverse people to share the common experience of what it means to have cancer. I like how Kim Madsen, the local community relations director for the ACS, explains it: "For those people who have gone through the cancer journey, Relay for Life is a big healing process. You’re surrounded by people who understand that journey."

It’s one of those bonds that forms among people who’ve had to navigate the same emotional landscape. They get it without needing a lengthy explanation. The club has its own subcultures – children with cancer, women with breast cancer, young adults with cancer, men with prostate cancer, caregivers, short-term survivors, long-term survivors, the recently diagnosed, the currently in treatment – but they all still belong to the same society.

Dr. Bruce Campbell, a blogger and physician at the University of Wisconsin, recently witnessed this unspoken connection while attending a conference for cancer survivors:

The stillness in the meeting room was electric.

First, one panelist addressed the audience members who have never experienced a malignancy. She described the unique and powerful bond that exists between cancer survivors. She described how the brush with mortality forces each survivor to renegotiate terms with Life itself. She reminded everyone that the cancer care system too often lets down both cancer patients and survivors.

Then she addressed the cancer survivors. "As a fellow survivor, even if you and I have never met before, I would bet that we would find common ground within fifteen seconds." Other survivors in the room agreed with her immediately.

It’s invisible but it’s very real. The fundraising and the community awareness are important elements of the Relay for Life too, of course, but in the end it’s the shared experience that speaks the loudest and makes this event unlike any other. If you’ve never attended a Relay for Life, mark it on your calendar and be there next year.

West Central Tribune photo by Ron Adams

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