Revitalizing Relay for Life

October 28, 2013 10:12 am

For more than 15 years Relay for Life has been a cornerstone of support for current and former cancer patients along with their caregivers in Union and Wallowa counties.

However, with the recent retirement of the organization’s chair and co-chair and a dwindling number of volunteers, Relay for Life is in urgent need of volunteers.

This is the passionate campaign of one of its remaining organizers, Kim Svaty of La Grande, who chairs the committee for the Survivor Dinner, which kicks off the event at Eastern Oregon University each summer. She’s seen a gradual dwindling of volunteers and it’s concerning.

“Last year in July, we had 11 teams, and 40 participants and caregivers for the Survivor Dinner,” Svaty said. “But in past years, we had 20-plus teams and 80 to 100 participants. We’re losing our support at the Relay, and if the Relay doesn’t go through next year, the cancer patients might think we’re not there for them.”

Svaty has a personal interest in seeing that the Relay for Life maintains its presence in the community for those affected by cancer. Her father died at age 76 from complications from a colon cancer surgery, and others in her family have also experienced cancer. 

“In 2006, I was diagnosed with a pre-melanoma,” she said. “My mother and sister have both had previous cancers and another relative was just diagnosed with cancer, too.”

Melanomas are the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Svaty’s case, she has to be on the offensive, diligent at keeping her doctor appointments every four months for a routine skin check, looking for other pre-cancerous moles. 

“I’ve had 17 spots removed in 11 surgeries,” Svaty said. “I wore the special clothing and floppy hat to protect myself from the sun. Eventually, I started to become afraid of the sun. I didn’t like feeling that way.”

Svaty said she is being proactive for the sake of her son. 

“I had one son late in life so I wanted to live for him,” she said.

However, that’s not the only cancer that Svaty has staved off. 

“I also had pre-cancerous polyps in my colon,” she said. “They are so easy to fix if you have early detection with a colonoscopy. At the Grande Ronde Hospital, we have a great oncologist, Dr. (Maynard) Bronstein, and we have an oncology room where people can get their treatments and not have to travel out of the area for that anymore.”

Svaty has learned that it takes time to collect yourself once you’ve been given a diagnosis for a cancerous or precancerous condition. It’s a time for personal and spiritual reflection and to let reality sink in.

“When you walk out of a surgery, you don’t want anyone to know. You don’t want to acknowledge it,” she said.

It wasn’t until about nine years ago after becoming the caregiver for her sister, who had cancer, that Svaty got involved with Relay for Life.

“My sister lived with me in Vancouver, Wash.,” she said. “I remember when she started to lose her hair. We didn’t know what to do but laugh. We went looking for wigs, and every time she tried one on, it hurt because her scalp was so sore. The bond between us grew very strong during that (difficult) time.”

Sometimes the mature responsibility of caregiving is shared by children. 

“My sister’s 9-year-old daughter was also one of her caregivers,” Svaty said. “She washed her mother’s hair for her because her mother could not lift her arms high enough. Through it all, my sister had a desire to live for her son and daughter, and today, my sister is a 15-year cancer survivor.”

In Svaty’s early years with the relay, she brought her son, Jace, with her in a stroller, and together they honored her sister by getting involved in the event. Since then, Jace has continued to volunteer, not just because his mother is training him to be a lifelong community volunteer, but because Relay for Life is about caring about people. Now, Jace serves with his mother on the luminary committee, selling $5 luminary sacks filled with sand and a candle. These are placed all around the track and lit at dusk.

“La Grande’s luminary sacks are in honor of and in memory of a loved one or survivor of cancer,” she said. “The sacks are probably the most emotional part of Relay (for Life) because of the realization of exactly how many people really are touched by cancer.”

Getting others involved is the challenge that Svaty now faces, but she’s not ready to give up because she’s been both a patient and a caregiver. She knows what it means to both to have this kind of support. 

“You can’t go through cancer alone,” she said.