Annual Relay for Life fundraiser still drawing people bound by trauma of diagnosis, fight for life

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: EMILY GOODYKOONTZ - Cancer survivors hold up cards denoting the number of years they have survived their cancer diagnosis during the survivors lap the the Relay for Life of Western Washington County on Saturday, July 8.Everyone knows someone affected by cancer.

So says Cameron Rutledge, who was just 16 and a junior at Forest Grove High School when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma.

Now 26, Rutledge returned to Forest Grove Saturday, July 8, and shared his survival story with the hundreds of others attending the Relay For Life of Western Washington County.

"I decided to focus on the positive — the 'can' part of cancer. I turned 'cancer' into 'I can survive' and 'I can surpass,'" said Rutledge.NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: EMILY GOODYKOONTZ - Cameron Rutledge, 26, was diagnosed with cancer as a 16-year-old Forest Grove High School student and spoke to the Relay for Life crowd about his experience.

People are often shocked to hear him describe his cancer experience in such accepting terms, he said. But it completely changed his perspective on life, for the better.

"Nothing is guaranteed. You're not guaranteed tomorrow, next week, next month, next year," said Rutledge. "All we have is right now. We have to enjoy it and focus on the positive."

To take positive control and continue the fight against cancer, 16 teams gathered at Tom McCall Elementary to raise money for the American Cancer society, continuously walking a quarter-mile track for 13 hours under a hot summer sun.

A worldwide event

Relay For Life occurs regularly in over 5,200 communities and 27 countries around the world, raising money for cancer research and funding services and expenses for patients. So far, a total of $48,690 has been raised through Saturday's event, with pledge money still coming in.

During the rain-or-shine relay, teams gather to honor cancer survivors, people currently fighting cancer, and those who've been lost to the disease, as well as the family and friends of all affected. Teams set up themed campsites to spur fundraising efforts, collecting donations for food, goods, games, and activities and bringing joy to an event normally infused with struggle and sadness.

"Cancer has a formidable nature, a resourceful manner and a destructive appetite but it will never have what we have," said Dawn Andresen, Relay for Life co-chair as she spoke at the opening ceremony. "We have an advantage over cancer because of the generosity of people like you. We have courage, hope, empathy and determination and together we can make the greatest impact to save lives."

This year, over 1.6 million Americans are expected to be diagnosed with cancer and 600,920 people will die from the disease. It is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., exceeded only by heart disease, said Andresen.

Changes this year

Each year, a local planning committee of dedicated volunteers organizes the relay. This year, the 18-person committee changed the name from Relay for Life of Forest Grove to Relay for Life of Western Washington County to include the communities of Cornelius, Banks, Gaston, Gales Creek, and North Plains. They also moved the event from its previous location at Neil Armstrong Middle School to Tom McCall in an effort to increase the relay's visibility and its community involvement.

Relays across the country are changing their events to fit their communities and national trends, said Claire Ramaley, publicity coordinator.

It used to be a 24-hour event, signifying the relentless nature of the disease (cancer doesn't sleep), with teams relaying around the clock. But with a significant number of participants dwindling under the previous 24-hour model, "we shortened our event to encourage more people to come out," said Ramaley. "People are so busy they may not be able to commit to a 24-hour event, but might be able to commit to an 11-hour event."

Eldena VanderZanden, cancer survivor and team captain of Bedes of Sweat from St. Bede Episcopal Church, said she worries the change in hours may limit her team's ability to fundraise, but she understands the reason behind it.

From 'honor' to 'memory'

Since 2008, Bedes of Sweat has raised over $55,000 for the American Cancer Society and VanderZanden has dedicated herself to the cause for the past 17 years. She was the recipient of this year's Spirit of Relay Award, honoring her for her dedication and willingness to share her survivor story to inspire others, said Andresen.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: EMILY GOODYKOONTZ - Eldena VanderZanden (left), a two-time cancer survivor participated in the relay for her 17th year, receiving this years Spirit of Relay award for her dedication to the cause. Her granddaughter, Kayla, 10, is at the right.VanderZanden's team raised $9,189 this year and she expects the number to rise as pledges are met and donations come in.

Another longtime participant, Tara Bohren of Hillsboro, is the co-captain of the Will Walk For Cure team and began participating 10 years ago in honor of her brother, Brenen Jones, who died of cancer in October 2003 at age 26. Her 12-year-old daughter, Sahalie, has been at the relay every year since she was 2, and is now the captain of her own team, Bohren Strong, in honor of her late father, Isaac Bohren. Isaac received a diagnosis just a few years after Jones passed away, and the cancer took his life just two months later.

Together with Tara's sister and co-captain, Jamie Russ, and brother/co-captain, Adam Silva, the four created a colorful patchwork display of the friends and relatives whose battles — or memories — they honor at the relay.

"The hardest part of relay is when we start relaying 'in honor of' and it changes to 'in memory of,'" said Bohren. NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: EMILY GOODYKOONTZ - Team Captain Tara Bohren of team Will Walk for Cure hugs her daughter Sahalie, captain of Bohren Strong, at the Relay For Life of Western Washington County. Bohren lost her brother to cancer and Sahalie lost her father to cancer just a few years later.

Her team has raised $40,000 over the last nine years and has even started a yearly disc golf fundraising event at Horning's Hideout in North Plains, continuing their 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-per-year crusade against cancer.

FGPD steps up

Newcomers particpated in the event too, including the Forest Grove Police Department's team, FGPD: Cops For a Cure, captained by Lauren Quinsland, community outreach specialist.

Quinsland said the officers want to connect with their community not just as police but as real people who are also affected by cancer.

Officer Austin Adams' father is a survivor of bladder cancer, for example. After the experience of watching his father fight the disease, Adams dedicated himself to helping children who are fighting cancer.

Taking a volunteer position as a mentor in a program called Chemo Buddies, he visits children in the hospital, playing video games and giving them support. Adams said even though the kid he's been mentoring has graduated from the program, he still face-times with the 9-year-old almost every day.

"It's all about positive interaction," said Adams.

And that's key, Rutledge said: "Biggest takeaway from my cancer journey was you're not in those valleys alone and no one can get to the mountaintop without people helping them get there. The four other people in my family were diagnosed with cancer the day I recieved my diagnosis because we're all fighting (my) cancer together. It's not just an individual journey." NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: EMILY GOODYKOONTZ - Forest Groves finest take a lap around the track together for the first time as team FGPD: Cops For a Cure. NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: EMILY GOODYKOONTZ - Memorial luminarias line the track at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School during this years Relay for Life, waiting to be lit later that night.

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