The kickoff dinner for the 2018 Meriden/Wallingford Relay for Life took place this past week with over 100 volunteers gathered to begin the planning for this 23rd annual event. I was there because Relay for Life and the American Cancer Society have a special significance for me as I am -- quite thankfully -- a cancer survivor.
In 1985, at age 40, I was diagnosed with Seminoma -- a rare form of cancer that had reached stage 3 (stage 4 is lethal).
I was fortunate to have a wonderful oncologist, Dr. Arthur Levy, who researched the options and concluded: “We will cure you, but damn near kill you in the process with poisonous chemotherapy. But you are strong and you can handle it.”
Those chilling words challenged my fighting spirit and I was very fortunate to gain a cure (together with a miracle chemical cocktail that was the perfect antidote for Seminoma).
Five months later, after weeks of in-patient intravenous chemotherapy at the old Meriden-Wallingford Hospital on Cook Avenue, Dr. Levy pronounced me cancer free. It was then, and still is to this day, one of the happiest moments of my life and I remember it as if it were yesterday.
A few years later, the American Cancer Society called to ask me if I would be willing to chair a Signature Event (which was new to Connecticut) -- Relay for Life, a 24-hour outdoor event to raise funds for cancer research and patient services.
The 24-hour Relay for Life was founded by Dr. Kordy Klatt who started it by running for 24 hours on a track in Tacoma, Washington. In addition to raising funds, the relay was established as a day of healing, memories and hope all found in a grassroots movement that unites communities to celebrate people who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost, and to take action that will finish the fight against cancer, once and for all.
At first, knowing what a daunting responsibility this would entail, I hesitated. But after thinking it over and realizing how much I owed for my cancer cure, I accepted. Soon I enlisted some friends (most of whom had also been touched by cancer in their lives) and we met for the first time on a snowy February evening in 1996 to plan our first Relay for Life in Meriden for the Spring. This event was so new our American Cancer Society Staff member had never planned one, but we were determined to do our best.
As it turned out, we more than tripled our first-year goal of $20,000 by raising $69,000. The next year, the Wallingford community joined in -- and over the next four years we totaled nearly one million dollars. This fundraising amount was previously unheard of among our two communities, and it continues to be the largest charitable fundraiser in the area.
This year’s Relay event will be held on Friday and Saturday, May 18 and 19, at the outdoor track at Maloney High School. The event theme is the global fight against cancer (over 20 countries now hold relay events) and each relay team will be assigned a flag from a different country and will decorate their tent with that theme.
Tina Rodriguez, the voluntary chairperson of this year’s event, is a 9-year veteran with Relay for Life. She is the Outreach Educator for MidState Medical Center and provides cancer prevention education and outreach to our local communities. Tina is very enthusiastic and passionate about Relay because she has had many immediate family members affected by cancer.
Tina and I both share a passion for Relay because of our personal stories. Over the past 22 years of relay, I have walked many survivor laps and I still get choked up when I see a toddler dragging an oversized survivor sash on the ground walking alongside an eighty-year-old.
Each year we see more and more cancer survivors participating in the race, walking triumphantly to the music of “We are the champions” past the cheering crowds who line the track. What a great feeling!
I know we speak for the thousands of cancer survivors, their families, loved ones and caregivers when we say “thank you” to all those who support the Meriden/Wallingford Relay for Life. You are making a positive difference in the fight against cancer by saving lives, and contributing to the quality of life for those afflicted.
We encourage you to join us on May 18 and 19 at Maloney High School to participate.
For further information please contact Lynn Kipphut, American Cancer Society: 203-379-4874.
Michael S. Rohde is a former city councilor and mayor of Meriden.