Relay for Life walks for cancer research

Kate Wegehaupt

Kate Wegehaupt

An all-night relay of walking will soon take place at SDSU to help raise money for cancer awareness and research.

One of the most anticipated parts of SDSU’s fourth annual Relay for Life, to be held April 30, are the first two laps around the track by survivors and caregivers.

“Telling [survivors], “Hey, I’m proud of you. You made it through,’ and being able to walk that survivor lap &- that I still can &- is really cool,” said cancer survivor Josh Lee. “Giving survivors support alone is one of my biggest reasons why I think people should go support relay.”

Giving encouragement to survivors is one goal Colleges Against Cancer has with Relay for Life. Every year, an honorary survivor is selected to share his or her story. This year’s honorary survivor is junior Hilary Gerster, a pharmacy student.

Gerster was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) in 2004, her freshman year of high school. She underwent treatment &- chemotherapy and some radiation &- for three years, was one of the first patients at the Minneapolis Children’s Hospital to work with a home health care nurse and participated in a clinical trial for the drug Gleevec. Yet overall, Gerster did not want cancer to affect her life.

“I still wanted to go to school everyday,” Gerster said. “I’d unhook my treatment and go do a golf tournament.”

Gerster said she did not to let cancer change her life. Today, she still tries not to let it define her.

“I never thought of it as, “I have cancer’ and I still don’t like to think about it like that,” said Gerster. “I like to think of it like “It happened;’ another obstacle to get through.”

Lee makes clear that he would not be who he is today without having had ALL.

“I’d do it exactly as it was,” said Lee. “I’d be a way different person, and I’m fairly happy with the person I am.”

In 2005, as a junior in high school, Lee knew something was wrong. A case of pneumonia lasted two months and intense headaches &- “like if you had a migraine then got hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat” &- would not stop. His hemoglobin counts were so low, his skin was “as white as a piece of paper,” said Lee.Three years after his initial diagnosis, Lee had a relapse. “The second time I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t look pale. I was carrying an 80 pound pack on my back three to four miles a day for a job.”

Shocked, Lee had fewer options for treatment due to a temporary, stroke-like reaction to an earlier drug. After talking with his doctor, Lee chose to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

In a situation where the ideal bone marrow donor is a 100 percent match, both Lee’s sister and brother fit that need.

“This is pretty rare,” Lee said his doctor told him. “One in a thousand have one sibling that’s a perfect match. One in 10 million has two siblings. (The doctor said) on your way home, I’d buy a lottery ticket because you’ve got quite a bit of luck.”

And his luck continued. Lee was out of the hospital in about 25 days, when a 40 to 60-day stay is common. In fact, in around 60 days Lee was back home in Rapid City; in 90, he was back at school.

Since then, sharing his story is important to Lee. He first shared it when a high school teacher struck a deal with him.

“[He said] “I’ll give you your grade on one condition; that you come in next fall and tell your story and all you’ve been through to this point,'” said Lee.

Overall, a positive attitude is what Lee credits as the most valuable lesson.

“Cancer didn’t have us, we had cancer,” said Lee. “You can’t beat cancer with a negative attitude.”

The fourth annual Relay for Life takes place April 30 from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the Campanile Green. Themed, “Marga-Relay-ville: Giving Cancer the Cha-Cha-Cha,” 40 teams made of students, campus clubs, fraternities, residential halls and faculty will celebrate the lives of those affected by cancer.

To pump up participants and attendees, Colleges Against Cancer is hosting a Mr. Relay Contest &- similar to the SDSU favorite Miss Homelycoming pageant. Each team also organizes an on-site fundraiser, including everything from selling puppy chow snack mix to fortune telling and Plinko. The band Team Jacob will also perform. A 5 p.m. barbecue is open to everyone before the Relay.

Colleges Against Cancer hopes to raise $35,000 this year. Currently they are at about $16,000, but a big jump comes with money brought in from the Relay.

“Cancer never sleeps and neither does fundraising,” said Emily Cummins, co-chair for the Relay.

All money raised goes toward cancer research through the American Cancer Society. But the most important contribution made is cheering on survivors and caregivers.

“People that don’t have cancer or haven’t sat with someone who’s had cancer don’t realize what it’s like,” said Lee. “There’s a lot of different reasons people relay, but I think for survivors that’s one of the most important.”