YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Those who commit to Relay for Life’s mission, like Lakeland High School senior Alyssa Monte, don’t pale at the sight of the most up-to-date cancer statistics, no matter how alarming—instead, they are motivated by them.
According to the American Cancer Society’s Statistics Center, there will be 1,688,780 new cases of cancer in 2017 and 600,920 deaths. For perspective, the fifth largest city in the Midwest, Milwaukee, is estimated to have a population of 601,208 by the end of 2017.
For those who survive cancer, or who watch helplessly as their loved ones deaths are marked by another click of the counter, those statistics leap off the page. Relay for Life offers them a support system, and an outlet where they can pour their grief and frustration into something positive and productive, Monte explained.
Monte and her family began walking when her cousin’s father was diagnosed with cancer. When they were forming the team, her grandfather was diagnosed. The family has a history of cancer.
“It was always just there in my family, so once we heard about the organization, it just made sense to get involved,” she said.
In 2014, her grandfather passed away.
“We walked with my grandpa for a couple of years,” she said. “When he passed away it wasn’t ever a thought to stop doing it; it was more of an incentive to keep going.”
At 17 years old, Monte has lost several family members to cancer. Most recently, her younger cousin.
“Everyone has been affected in some way, or knows someone who has been affected, it’s just sort of a common thing that doesn’t have to be if we all got involved,” Monte said.
Monte co-captains “Carolyn’s Crew,” Lakeland High School’s relay team, with fellow student Lacey Milano. The team was created in memory of Carolyn Conroy, a math teacher who died from cancer in 2008. Every year, the team hosts a “Walk for Carolyn” fundraiser in her memory. All proceeds are donated to American Cancer Society.
Acting as the liaison between the high school and Yorktown’s Relay for Life Committee, Monte also sits on the committee, where she is the youngest person.
Kait Chieco, senior community manager for the American Cancer Society, said Monte is an invaluable resource when it comes to offering the committee a youth perspective, and spearheading the initiatives from Lakeland High School, and she will be dearly missed when she graduates.
“She is a reliable, passionate and generous person with her time,” Chieco said. “Her energy is just really something special. She’s one of the best kids that I’ve had the blessing to be interacting with in my job.”
Chieco said Monte encompasses many of the organization’s values.
“She really does want to see a day when cancer does not exist,” Chieco said. “She really wants to make sure that people who are going through their diagnosis are getting the care and support they need.”
The respect Chieco has for Monte goes both ways. Monte credits Chieco’s arrival to the committee two years ago for much of her inspiration to take on more responsibility within Relay for Life. Her passion was contagious, Monte said, and seeing Chieco’s passion and involvement made her want to get more involved and “go that extra mile,” she said.
Monte said that one of her favorite things about the organization is that when a team raises funds, the American Cancer Society sends them a breakdown of where the money that team raised went specifically within the organization. Seeing that the money her team worked hard to raise helped a person who couldn’t otherwise afford a hotel, have a place to stay when they travel to get treatment, or helped someone experiencing hair loss get a wig, is rewarding, Monte said.
While the Relay for Life event is a happy, hopeful occasion, participants are reminded why they are there fighting, as the lifeblood of the event is those who have died or are fighting, Monte said. Luminaria bags dedicated in the memory of someone, or in honor of someone still fighting, line the track, and other ceremonies motivate the participants through the all-night event, which is designed to symbolize the journey cancer patients experience.
One ceremony, described by Monte, entails participants snapping different colored glow sticks for different people in their lives who have been lost, and holding them up.
“You break a certain color if you’ve lost your sister or your cousin,” Monte explained. “By the end, you just look around and everyone has a glow stick lit up. It lights up the whole track and it’s so beautiful. When you really look around and see all of those who are affected by it or who show up and contribute to your cause, it’s really meaningful.”
Although leaving her role as the high school liaison is sad, Monte said, she looks forward to the future. An avid photographer and artist, she plans to attend SUNY Purchase in the fall as an undeclared visual arts major. She will continue participating in relay events, she said.
As for her high school experience, she said her participation in Relay was rewarding enough for her to recommend to young high school students considering extra-curricular activities.
“It’s just been such an awesome time,” she said. “Since I joined, I really do feel like I’m making a difference. There are so many people in the world who are affected by cancer. It’s clearly not going away and we’ve all been trying to fight and raise money. The more people that get involved, the faster we can make a change.”