WEST ORANGE, NJ – The West Orange Relay for Life on Friday saw individuals, teams, schools, families, friends and survivors walk the track of West Orange High School with a purpose: to help stop cancer.
From 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., local volunteers and participants from the community celebrated cancer survivors, remembered those lost to the disease, and issued calls to take action to save more lives from cancer. This year's event included activities for kids, including giant Jenga and Connect Four games, and tents on the upper field to keep participants close all night long.
The money raised for the American Cancer Society’s research will be announced and the number of participants tallied, but before a single sneaker hit the track, 33 teams and 305 participants had already raised more than $27,000. (At press time, the amount raised is over $37,000)
Yet despite those great numbers, it is the stories behind the people involved that make the event special, emotional and one of the most anticipated fundraisers of the year.
At 7 p.m., the Opening Ceremony included survivors speaking and the Survivor and Caregiver Laps, and launched the evening with poignancy and a determination to fight for a cure.
Lisa Renwick, the event’s organizer, told the crowd, “We need to raise funds, to find the cures so that we can live in a cancer free world. We are still accepting donations through August 31st.” The website for donations is listed below.
Showing cancer knows no boundaries of title or privilege, former Governor Richard Codey took to the stage to tell his own family story with cancer. “When my wife was diagnosed in 2002, she had to have a double mastectomy. Now we’ve come so far but still have far to go.”
Survivor David DeRonde was diagnosed in 2011 with advanced Stage 3 colorectal cancer. “I had symptoms for over a year but hadn’t been going to the doctor when I should have,” he admitted. “It’s very important to remind people to see their physicians. “
DeRonde’s road to survival was long and difficult. “I had surgery to remove the tumor first, then twelve rounds of chemo and a month of radiation, which is the normal regimen,” he said. “In 2012 my daughter Ashley became very active with the Relay for Life in response to my diagnosis. Being part of the Relay, I feel good helping to raise money and hopeful that they’ll someday find a cure.”
As many of the survivors, he expressed, “I’m one of the lucky ones, five years out and cancer free, I’m very blessed.”
Deb Rees, music teacher at Kelly Elementary School celebrated at this year’s event. “It’s actually my 5th anniversary at the event, as a survivor, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it without my partner, Julie, who’s been incredibly supportive and helpful,” she said.
“It’s exciting to be supporting a wonderful cause. It’s a great night, the weather’s fantastic. It’s a great thing to be part of!”
Cory Lillis was exposed to what happens when friends get cancer at a young age. His mother, Aluse, tells the story that “in 2nd grade, about 2008, Cory’s occupational therapist had gotten breast cancer, and Cory decided he decided he wanted to do something for her. He grew out his hair for two years and cut it in front of the Pleasantdale School to support her.”
But his support of his friend and the cause did not end there. Alyse recounted, “In beginning of Fifth grade, she was diagnosed again, so he grew his hair again for her…this time in front of his friends at Liberty Middle School. It was eight inches long. He also created his own relay team, at 13 years of age.”
Some of this year’s attendees have been coming to the event for years. Monica Perkowski has been involved for the last 13 years and was captain of the Mardi Gras Madness team, as well as a volunteer for various committees.
“I got involved after my grandmother lost the battle to cancer in 1998, which sparked me and my interest,” she said of her personal connection to the event.
“It’s all about celebration, honoring those who fight the fight, and remembering those who have lost the fight," Perkowski continued. "As everyone walks the night, and the sun rises, we have a “Fight Back” ceremony in the morning where we talk about continuing the fight and raising money to hopefully eradicate the disease in the future,” she said.
Alex DeRonde, a 19 year survivor of breast cancer, has attended Relay five times. “I have a great experience every time I attend,” she said. “ They make us survivors feel very special, as well as our families and caretakers.”
Caretakers are an important group at this event. DeRonde said, “When you get cancer, the whole family gets cancer, so to speak. It’s great having the family members walking the second lap of the relay, since you’ve been going thru chemo , radio and other treatments. “
As the last rays of the sun left the sky, the track filled with a different kind of light as the Luminaria Ceremony lights the night in remembrance of people lost to cancer. Jessica Gaeta, who coordinated the entertainment and other activities for the event, gave a moving speech where she spoke at length about channeling her mother’s strength and memory.
“I learned the year I lost my mother to cancer, that life is about choices,” she said. “I wanted my mom to see me graduate from college and see me and my sister get married. But that wasn’t an option. So I decided to kick the shit out of option B.”
She explained, “What is option B? For me, it is this…Relay for Life. Option B is raising money for cancer research and programs and services for those who are battling cancer…it’s educating people about cancer and creating awareness about the disease. Option B is about celebrating Life. My mom had the strongest Brooklyn accent, was an avid curser, a stereotypical Italian, and made the best meatballs in the world. She was a really hard worker. She cried at the drop of the hat, which clearly I inherited. And she approached cancer in the best way she could, always putting me and my sister first, even though she knew she was dying.”
Gaeta concluded, “To me, as you take the silent lap together, I hope you’ll think of the loved ones and find a way to celebrate the lives of those who are battling, and remember the good memories of those we’ve lost. Most importantly that you take the pledge tonight to do something to stop this disease. I hope you’ll choose option B with me. My mom didn’t lose her battle to cancer…she just passed it on to me to finish it. So let’s finish this fight together.”
Numerous teams from West Orange High School participated, including the Walkaholics, who were walking to support senior Jimmy Tiernan who is missing his prom and graduation as he battles leukemia. (story here.)
Donations are still being accepted for 2016. To find out more or to make a donation, go to www.relayforlife.org/westorangenj.