Relay for Life participants honor commitment to fighting cancer



Luminaries honor cancer patients during the 2011 Relay For Life walk around the Bellingham Public Library.


Almost 20 years ago, I was asked to volunteer with the northwest section of the American Cancer Society. As a new doctor in town, I had the time, energy and the enthusiasm to help this well-meaning organization. The northwest American Cancer Society committee met regularly at one of the business offices of our volunteer leader, Gloria. Volunteers were survivors, local business people, homemakers, retired persons, doctors and health insurance personnel.

Gloria presented a "new idea" to our local committee that had been initiated in other states. This idea seemed to galvanize the community and the American Cancer Society together as a united force. They called this new concept a "24 Hour Relay for Life." This event was a marathon to support those with cancer. Individuals (and later teams) would participate in a continuous run that lasted all night long. The goal was to have at least one person on the track walking all night long for 24 hours showing we won't quit the fight against cancer.

This idea was met with much skepticism by many of the local board members. Who would want to be out all night? What if you didn't have enough people to be continuously on the track? Who would we get to participate? Would people support this?

Our chairperson was convinced that this would be a great idea and over the next three months, she encouraged our committee to enlist our community to engage in this unique event. Our committee asked survivors, business people, health care workers, retired people, homemakers and the spectrum of interested (and uninterested) people to participate. We were hoping to have at least one person on the track for 24 hours.

The initial response was slow. People didn't quite understand what this overnight event was supposed to do. Yet, as time went on, the response was surprising and gratifying. People seemed interested. People wanted to support the cause, and were touched by the concept of the 24 Hour Relay for Life.

When it came down to the day of the event, we didn't have a large crowd participating but we were successful with at least one person on the track for the entire 24-hour relay. By the end of the event, we had a completely committed group of people, and a local Whatcom County American Cancer Society board that was convinced this was a great idea.

The next year, we had another 24 Hour Relay for Life, which was twice as big as the first. The third year doubled the size and doubled the energy of the second year.

Since that first relay in Whatcom County almost 20 years ago, it has expanded in many ways. Now there are three relays in Whatcom County, the original Bellingham relay, a north county relay in Lynden and a WWU relay at the university. Each of these relays are supported by the personal excitement that comes with the individual components of the event: Team building, honoring individuals and encouraging friends, family and workmates to participate.

The enduring catalyst of this event is the relay itself. The relay starts with a speech or two which is followed by the honor lap around the track by survivors of every form of cancer. This single lap builds cohesion between all participants and survivors, showing that no matter what the form of cancer, we are here to beat this disease. It demonstrates the combined will of the group to continue their efforts to eliminate this disease. Later that evening, the walk with the luminaries honors those who have directly fought this disease. And as the relay finishes 24 hours after it starts, it signifies the untiring efforts that are being made to conquer this disease and eliminate it from our midst.

For me, the most impressive and inspiring moment of the relay occurs in the early evening during the walk with the luminaries. You see thousands of lighted, decorated paper bags encircling the track, each one glowing in honor of a person who has been impacted by cancer. Walking past these hand-drawn paper bags, each personalized with a name in dedication, is truly inspiring. The experience speaks of the emotional connection between all of us to support each other, and recognizes the specialness of each person. Although we are individuals, walking amongst the luminaries offers us a greater awareness of humanity, and helps us recognize that together we can do wonders.

As a doctor who cares for patients with cancer, I'm impressed by the individual courage, personal drive and focus that each person brings to fight this great fight. I especially appreciate the Relay for Life, where we can see the embodiment of hundreds of people demonstrating their own courage and personal drive to conquer this disease for all of us.

I'm honored to have participated in all three of Whatcom County Relays for Life. I hope you participate as well.


There are three Relays for Life in Whatcom County:

North County, 6 p.m., Friday, June 21 at the Northwest Washington Fair and Event Center, 1775 Front St, Lynden. For information go online to

Bellingham, 6 p.m., Friday, July 12, at Lottie and Grand streets, circling the Bellingham Public Library. For information go online to;

WWU, held May 18 at the university.


Dr. Cary S. Kaufman is a breast cancer specialist at Bellingham Regional Breast Center. Go online to for more information.

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