Relay for Life shines light on cancer victims, survivors, fighters

Syracuse University hosted its annual Relay for Life event last week to bring awareness to the deep-rooted effects cancer has on so many lives.

It's safe to say cancer had touched the lives of everyone present at Relay for Life at Syracuse University last week. 

For Karen Brunetti, it was her father. 

For Kathryn Miller, it was her elementary school gym teacher. 

For Aodhan Doyle, it was his mother. 

Syracuse University held its annual Relay for Life event to help support The American Cancer Society in the Carrier Dome last Saturday from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Its representative sponsor this year was Crouse Hospital, and the event had a turnout of hundreds of relayers from various student organizations, ages, and backgrounds.

Photo: Ally Moreo

Opening remarks were made by student volunteer co-chairs of the event, including Miller, a transfer student at SU. Miller has relayed since she was 10 years old for her elementary school gym teacher, Dan Foster, who was diagnosed with cancer. Miller said Foster was her inspiration to play sports in college and has known him for her entire life. Foster is a survivor of cancer and attended Saturday’s event with his wife and kids.

Doyle, a freshman broadcast and digital journalism student at SU, gave a brief speech on his own inspiration to relay: his mother, Lisa Forte-Doyle. In 2010, Forte-Doyle was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She endured countless sessions of chemotherapy and radiation, and ultimately underwent a mastectomy. At times, she was away from her home for months getting the treatment she needed.

Forte-Doyle, a high school English teacher from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has now been a cancer survivor for over five years, and will count her sixth year of being cancer-free this coming June 25.

She said her life changed forever when she received a nonchalant phone call from a radiologist, who very casually told her she had cancer and that she should see a surgeon as soon as possible. She still vividly remembers the casual demeanor of the doctor and the life-altering moment to this day, almost six years later.

Forte-Doyle views her survivor status as a celebration of her strength, rather than a reminder of suffering.

“I lost a breast. Big freaking deal," she said. "People lose limbs. People walk around with no legs. There was no grieving — none."

She dedicated her speech and her participation in this year’s relay to her son Aodhan and husband Tim. Remembering fond moments of how her family supported her during her fight, she laughed and said, “Aodhan was my clown who made me laugh, telling bald jokes in the waiting room up at the hospital. Everyone looked at us in horror. I was laughing my butt off.”

After the opening speech came the Survivor Lap, a time to honor those who’ve won the fight, and their caregivers and loved ones. A handful of survivor relayers of all ages and their families proudly marched around a track surrounded by the hundreds of other relayers attending the event, who applauded and cheered them on as the song “Fighter” by Christina Aguilera blared across the Dome. When they had made it around, the rest of the relayers joined in for the second lap to the tune of Destiny Child’s “Survivor.”

Upon entering the Dome, relayers were greeted by feel-good tunes from campus radio station Z89. A festive purple balloon archway framed a stage at the far end of the turf, and the words “Hope” and “Cure”, spelled out with luminaria bags, were visible high up in the stands.

There were lots of fun-filled attractions for relayers’ entertainment over the 12 hours to come, including an inflatable bounce house and jousting ring, a photo booth full of fun props, and gift basket raffles which were set up at various fundraising tables.

The turf was alive with activity, from relayers kicking around soccer balls and throwing Frisbees, to sleeping bags set up in circles camping-style with relay-goers playing card games and watching the entertainment provided by Otto Tunes, Main Squeeze and Orange Pulse Dance Troupe, among others. 

The (often intensely emotional) Luminaria Ceremony was held a few hours into the Relay event, and SU senior and biology and policy studies student Katherine Frega stepped up to the stage to deliver a keynote speech before the ceremony.

“You learn in biology class or elsewhere that cancer is mitosis gone wrong," Frega said. "But that’s not all, and now, being almost 4 years removed from cancer treatment, I feel compelled to share with you tonight what you don’t learn about cancer in the media or from your peers."

Next month will mark six years since Frega’s first diagnosis of cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Her speech was marked by highly emotional details of her difficult journey, and her ultimate triumph in the fight for life.

“Six years ago, my world was changed from my first cancer diagnosis, and I became an active participant in the fight against cancer," Frega said. "Three years ago, during my freshman year at Syracuse, I gave my second Relay for Life speech, and shared with the crowd that I came so far in my first year, from a hospital bed to a pre-med with a 4.0 GPA about to begin my first summer of cancer research."

Frega tearfully continued, promising to pursue oncology after heading to medical school in August. 

The lights were then dimmed out and a slideshow lit up the big screens of faces and names lost, but not forgotten, while names of loved ones were read aloud by Miller and other co-chairs of the event.

Relayers marched solemnly around the track lined with the luminarias, little white and purple glimmering paper bag memorials of hope and remembrance which glowed with the names of loved ones lost to cancer. Among the messages written on the luminaria memorials included such messages as “For you, Papou” and “I Relay for Bandit”, with a paw print doodled next to it. The luminarias showed that cancer takes all kinds of lives — and far too many.

But the ceremony glimmered with more than just the luminarias: it glowed with touching moments of human compassion.

A relayer walking by a memorial that had fallen over onto its side quickly stooped to return it to its upright position, in a gesture of honor and respect for the person it commemorated. Complete strangers consoled one another, and some cried into each other’s arms, while others stopped to sit down next to grieving relayers sitting near their loved one’s luminaria and held them as they wept, giving them encouraging, reassuring pats on the back.

After the ceremony concluded at around 10:30 pm, a picnic-style dinner was served. As the night wore on, attendees were invited to participate in a variety of activities, including a dance session and lip sync battle. There were even impromptu haircuts for Locks of Love being done up on stage by a stylist from local Garbo’s Salon for anyone who wished to donate their strands on the spot for a cause.

Each survivor had a special reason for being at Relay. Karen Brunetti, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, said she was there partially because she’s always gone to Relays.

A year ago, her life was personally impacted by cancer when her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Because her father lives in Florida and couldn't be physically present, Brunetti did a "virtual survivor lap” with her dad.

“I had him on speakerphone and I walked with the survivors," she said. "He couldn’t physically be here, but he still got to feel like he was honored."

Forte-Doyle’s son Aodhan Doyle, who plans to take an even bigger leadership role in Relay for Life’s planning committee for next year, said that this year’s Relay raised approximately $57,000.

He said this figure only includes those monies from who pre-registered, and doesn’t reflect any of the monies raised by those who registered at the door on the night of the event, gift basket and raffle fundraiser monies, or donations for luminarias. For these reasons, the actual amount raised could be much, much higher, he said, and next year’s goal is to raise $100,000.

Doyle says an impact was definitely made, and that he feels extreme gratitude for all those who came out to support the cause.

“Everyone’s here basically here for the same reason," Doyle said "To raise awareness, raise money and have a great time with friends.”

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