Linked together: local Relay for Life event marks 20 years in the fight against cancer

by Cristin Parker
Longtime Relay volunteer and cancer survivor Jay Hooker cuts the ribbon, officially kicking off the 20th annual Cherokee County Relay for Life event on Friday, April 27. Longtime Relay volunteer and cancer survivor Jay Hooker cuts the ribbon, officially kicking off the 20th annual Cherokee County Relay for Life event on Friday, April 27.

Two decades and more than $3 million later, participants in Cherokee County’s Relay for Life event are still marching toward the end of all cancers.

The county’s 2018 Relay for Life fund raising event marked its 20th anniversary Friday, April 27, at the Jacksonville Middle School campus, as more than 200 people joined in to honor cancer survivors and their caregivers; remember loved ones lost to the disease; and help raise awareness and funds to help wipe out cancer once and for all.

“In the 20 years we’ve been Relaying, Cherokee County has raised over $3 million to help fight this terrible, terrible disease,” longtime event organizer Cindy Kline said to the crowd. “There have been several wonderful advancements in diagnosing and treating different forms of cancer, but until we find a cure, there’s still so much more to be done.”

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), this year an estimated 1,735,350 new cancer cases will be diagnosed and 609,640 cancer deaths will occur in the U.S.

“That’s one of the most important things to remember about cancer – you never know when or who it might strike next,” Kline said.

To underline that point, Kline revealed, that’s why Cherokee County resident Jay Hooker was chosen to be 2018’s Relay ribbon-cutter, officially kicking off the event, leading the survivor’s lap – the first lap of the night.

“He’s volunteered and worked hard and tirelessly for Relay every year we’ve been doing it,” Kline said during his introduction. “Then recently, and unexpectedly, he received a cancer diagnoses. That’s why we chose to honor him tonight.”

Breast cancer survivor Betty Wood, of New Summerfield, also joined in the survivor’s lap.

“I received my diagnoses in 2000, on my birthday, no less,” she shared. “How’s that for a birthday present? I am fortunate, though – I’ve gotten a clean bill of health and will be able to celebrate lots more birthdays!”

Nineteen teams and numerous individuals from Jacksonville, Rusk, New Summerfield, Wells, Maydelle and other parts of Cherokee County participated in the overnight walk.

“Just in our department alone, we lost four people to cancer in 11 years,” Christus Trinity Mother Frances team captain Angie Halfpenny said. “That’s our reason to Relay. We’re getting closer and closer to eradicating some forms of this horrible illness, but we’ve still got a ways to go to get rid of it completely.”

Since its inception in 1985, Relay for Life events held across the country have raised more than $5 billion for the ACS. Kline said the money raised by Cherokee County’s Relay for Life helps fund early detection programs and family support services.

Last year, Cherokee County’s Taco Bell team earned the Nationwide Teams of Excellence award.

“It’s an extremely important cause for us,” area Taco Bell staff member Mike Davis said. “So many of our customers come in and share their stories how funds raised by Relay helped them or a loved one through their battles with cancer. It just makes you feel warm inside.”

Rusk resident Virginia Foreman, representing team Awesome Stars, agreed.

“This is an awesome event that does a lot of awesome things for people with cancer,” she said, “that’s why we’re called the Awesome Stars!”

Relay organizers also held the annual Survivor’s Banquet on Tuesday, April 10, at The Legacy, to honor both survivors and their caregivers.

“Since my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago, then two of our church friends were each also diagnosed, so we’ve been much more active in our Relay,” Lake Striker resident Jerry Halpain explained during the banquet.

Survivor Elizabeth Halpain added, “We had volunteered for three years prior to my diagnosis. It means so much to see so many people come out and support Relay and everything it does.”

And the tides do seem to be turning, according to researchers with the American Cancer Society.

“Over the past decade of data, the cancer incidence rate (2005-2014) was stable in women and declined by approximately 2 percent annually in men, while the cancer death rate (2006-2015) declined by about 1.5 percent annually in both men and women,” data found at reports. “The combined cancer death rate dropped continuously from 1991 to 2015 by a total of 26 percent, translating to approximately 2,378,600 fewer cancer deaths than would have been expected if death rates had remained at their peak. Of the 10 leading causes of death, only cancer declined from 2014 to 2015.”

Sponsors of 2018’s Relay for Life event include Taco Bell, UT Health Jacksonville, The Legacy, Harry’s Building Material, Arrington Lumber and Pallet Co., Cherokee County Federal Credit Union, Christus Trinity Mother Frances Health System, Rusk Mini Storage, Building Best, CalTech, Texas Oncology Tyler, Jeremy Harmel-State Farm Insurance, Stage Stores, Cardinal Health, Citizen’s 1st Bank, Cherokee Ice, Chili’s Grill & Bar-Jacksonville, the Daily Grind, Denny’s-Jacksonville, ETOX, David Anderson, Sadler’s Kitchen, Sign Gypsies, Weldon Cook-A&W Field Services, Prosperity Bank, Leon’s Signs, Hope Cancer Center of East Texas, Chapman Pharmacy, Jay Hooker, Jacksonville ISD Athletic Department, New Summerfield ISD, Senior Care of Jacksonville, First United Methodist Church-Jacksonville, Twin Oaks Rehab Center, Wells ISD and Wells LTC.