Hundreds attended the event earlier in the day, a morning and afternoon filled with familiarity. The opening ceremony and Survivor’s Lap packed the stadium’s track with purple shirts, ribbons and hats. As the survivors circled the track they were greeted by the warm congratulatory applause of onlookers.
The event featured the traditional assortment of colorful booths, plenty to eat in the food area and entertainment on the stage. Special “theme laps” kept things lively throughout the day, just as they had in each of the event’s previous years.
But as the hands of the clock climbed past midnight and descended into the wee hours of the morning, the crowd began to thin out. As the noise of the gathering diminished, the steady footfall of late-night walkers provided a rhythmic backdrop for the slumbering camps.
At about 3 a.m. the number of walkers had dwindled to a couple dozen. Hundreds of luminarias lining the outside of the track, memorializing and honoring cancer victims, slowly began to lose their glow, and silhouettes of tents and pop-up booths lined the opposite side. That’s when Brentwood’s Kendra Luck arrived.
“I always volunteer for this time,” Luck said as she took to the track for the start of her shift. “I walk at night because that’s when I can do it. Other people walk during the day because that’s when they can do it. We help each other out and get (everything) covered. That’s what Relay is all about: helping each other and fighting cancer.”
Event Chair Wanda Zimmerman said the numbers were down a bit this year. The 57 active teams raised $177,000 for the American Cancer Society and cancer research, down from $188,000 last year. It’s partly the economy, she said, and partly because the Oakley Relay For Life had drawn teams away from the Brentwood event. To Zimmerman, it didn’t matter where the money came from.
“Every dollar we raise is one dollar we didn’t have before,” she said as volunteers struck the set after Sunday’s closing ceremonies. Although there’s still no cure for cancer, she added, Relay For Life helps raise awareness of the disease and what can be done about it, and researchers are finding new treatments that can lengthen lives significantly while the cure is sought.
Fourteen-year-old Lola Clark is one beneficiary of recent progress. She was diagnosed two years ago with non-differentiated soft tissue sarcoma that had wrapped itself around her spine and spread to her lungs and liver. Doctors gave her a 10-percent chance of survival.
“I never thought I’d see my 13th birthday,” she told the crowd gathered around the stage. “No surgeon in the Bay Area would touch it.”
Despite her grim prognosis, Lola’s regimen of chemotherapy (today she takes 88 pills every day) and other therapy has helped her beat doctors’ predictions, leaving the spirited teen making jokes about the future she wasn’t sure she had.
“The doctors said I may not be able to have kids,” she said. “All I can think of is ‘They fried my eggs.’”
Hours later, Kendra Luck circled the track as the horizon began to brighten and walkers returned to the track in larger numbers. She thought of loved ones lost to cancer and hoped the approaching dawn would hold symbolism for the fight against the deadly disease.
“They need to keep working to find a cure so that one day everyone can be cancer-free,” she said. “Until that happens, I’ll keep coming back.”
Lola, too, is looking to the future, relying on strength she didn’t know she possessed.
“You never know how strong you are,” she said, “until being strong is the only option you have.”