Although their experiences with a sometimes-deadly disease drew hundreds of people to Mount Airy High School, a festival atmosphere prevailed at Saturday’s Relay for Life.
The spectre of cancer seemed to hover over the football field from a cloudless sky, yet it didn’t keep a sense of joy from dominating the proceedings. Stimulating music filled the air from live bands and a deejay; colorful balloons and banners provided a celebratory tone to the day-long event; and plenty of food and drinks were offered by volunteers manning a sea of tarps.
But most prominent of all were the smiles on faces of those just happy to be there, highlighting the fact that despite cancer still claiming many lives there are also success stories.
“It’s special — special to be alive,” Pinnacle resident Bernie Young said as he walked around the new rubberized track encircling the field.
The reason for Young’s exuberance involved his survival of pancreatic cancer, one of the worst forms of the disease. “This is my fifth year,” he said of the time since he first learned he was sick.
Young was joined by more than 100 others of all ages during a survivor lap Saturday evening, each with their own cancer stories, who were distinguishable by the purple T-shirts they wore to highlight that status. But he took it a step further, by also sporting a purple beard.
“A punch to the purple” is how Young’s daughter, Donna Gunnell, described her dad’s choice of appearance. And in support of him she also had purple streaks in her hair along with sisters Alison Jones and Becky Martin who were there as well.
Young, who participated in his first Relay for Life in 2009, arrived early in the afternoon, and was still on his feet when early evening came.
As he and other survivors made the loop in a symbolic show of strength against cancer, the song “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang blared from the sound system as onlookers in the grandstand cheered.
The track was lined with luminaries that were lit after dark in memory or honor of those who’ve battled cancer.
Saturday’s relay was expected to raise about $100,000 for cancer research, treatment, efforts for early detection and patient services. Nearly $2 million has been generated during the 19 years the Relay for Life has been held here.
Thirty local teams representing businesses, schools, churches and other entities — some wearing specially designed T-shirts during the relay — spearheaded the fundraising activities.
About 430 people registered to walk during the day as part of that effort, according to Dianne Johnson, who co-chaired the event along with Roxann Moore and Sally Adams.
“That does not include our survivors,” Johnson added.
With people of all ages, races, neighborhoods, occupations and social positions assembled Saturday, Mount Airy Mayor Deborah Cochran alluded to the universality of the disease in special remarks during an opening program.
“I don’t know many of us who haven’t been touched by cancer in some way,” the mayor said, mentioning her brother as one. He has managed to overcome leukemia.
This and other success stories show that money raised for cancer research is making a difference, she added. As of March 31, Cochran told the crowd, research facilities in North Carolina have received grants totaling more than $20 million to seek a cure.
Shirley Brinkley, a city commissioner, also attended the relay, walking with her granddaughter Christina. They were there in support of people they know who’ve been stricken by the disease. “I’ve had a sister-in-law to die,” Brinkley said.
“It’s a beautiful day to be alive and support such a worthy cause,” added Brinkley, who was participating in her first Relay for Life.
Bill Rountree of Mount Airy, a local member of the ministry, attended Saturday’s event in a professional capacity, providing its invocation. Unofficially, however, he also can be considered a cancer poster child.
He became afflicted by prostate cancer that metastasized in his lymph nodes. Meanwhile, his wife has had kidney, lung and breast cancer.
But both were there Saturday wearing happy faces along with their purple shirts. “I am a living, happy survivor,” Rountree said.
“We came here today and we’re going to walk — and we’re going to pray and we’re going to walk some more,” he said when delivering his invocation. “We’re doing it so that we may fight that cancer…so that we can all be survivors every day.”
One bit of advice Rountree offered afterward to others who are suffering is mainly to keep going — although he admitted there are days when he has trouble doing so.
“The best thing I can tell people is put your feet on the ground and fight every day.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.