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Local Impact of Relay for Life

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By Mary Heyl

On Saturday, June 11 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., hundreds of individuals will be gathered at the Cattaraugus County Fairgrounds in Little Valley for Relay for Life, a globally-recognized fundraising event for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Before and during Relay for Life, participants and survivors “compete” in teams to raise money, but also come together to remember and celebrate the lives of those diagnosed with cancer. Each year, more than four million people in over 20 countries raise money through Relay for Life; although the combined effort of these participants has a global impact on the fight against cancer, the local impact of funds raised for ACS is immeasurable. The free services the  ACS offers those diagnosed with cancer right here in Cattaraugus County is as local as one’s living room.

This year, Relay for Life has moved from its past location at Ellicottville Central School to the fairgrounds for the first time.  According to Randolph resident Heather Morris, Community Manager of Relay for Life for both Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, “As with any community-driven fundraising event, we are always looking for ways to include more people into the cause. We are excited that this new Relay For Life of The Fairgrounds will be able to include all surrounding areas, including Ellicottville, in a centralized location.”

Sherry Charlesworth, who is the Relay for Life of The Fairgrounds Event Leader and Leader of Team Walk This Way, is excited about the opportunities this new location affords. In addition to having more parking and handicap accessibility, moving to the fairgrounds is a key step in achieving the goal of involving the communities of Cattaraugus, Ellicottville, Franklinville, Gowanda, Little Valley, Perrysburg, Randolph, Salamanca, Springville, West Valley, and every community in between.

The first Relay for Life event was held in 1985 in Tacoma, WA, when Dr. Gordy Klatt walked and ran for 24 hours around a track and raised $27,000 to help the ACS. Since then, Relay for Life has been held in communities big and small all around the country, as nearly everyone has been affected by cancer in some way. For many, participating in Relay is a matter of personal importance, as it is for Morris, whose sister was diagnosed with melanoma several years ago.

While most are aware of the oncology appointments, surgeries, and chemotherapy and radiation treatments that are a vital part of battling cancer, what many are unaware of are the “behind the scenes” local services that the ACS provides–services that Morris is eager to share. The Ride to Recovery program provides transportation to and from treatments, and the Reach to Recovery program, a breast cancer support service, pairs patients with volunteers who will talk with them about coping with their breast cancer through their diagnosis and treatments.

Many patients lose some or all of their hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes while undergoing treatment, and the Look Good, Feel Better program addresses these appearance-related side effects of cancer. According to Morris, “Licensed cosmetologists provide free workshops to any cancer patient and present them with a makeup kit to use at home. We have workshops at WCA Hospital in Jamestown, several in the Buffalo area, and one opening in Olean. We also have Mary’s Wig Room in our Amherst office where cancer patients can go to receive a free wig. We can also mail wigs directly to patients’ homes if they are unable to travel.”

At Hope Lodge, patients and their families have a free place to stay while undergoing treatments away from home. Many Cattaraugus County residents travel to Buffalo for cancer treatments, including Morris’ friend, whose mother was receiving cancer treatments there over the course of several weeks. Morris explained that both her friend and her mother were able to stay at Hope Lodge and, “The burden lifted off her shoulders by having a free place to stay and home cooked meals daily was priceless to her. She has often wondered how they would have made it through without that support. Her experience at Hope Lodge and with the ACS has actually  inspired her to start a new Relay team this year to help pay it forward. She is looking forward to walking next to her mother around that track!”

Relay for Life began in Cattaraugus County in 1997 in Olean, and it was then that Great Valley resident Priscilla Snider first became involved as a team member. Snider, who was inspired by friends and family diagnosed with cancer, has been a part of Relay every year since, eventually becoming a team leader, committee member, and co-chair person for the event. In 2012, Snider, herself, was diagnosed with cancer, and was recognized as an honorary survivor of the year in 2013.

Although Snider did not need all of the services provided by ACS, she is a firm believer in the local impact these services have. “I was fortunate that I responded well to treatments right here in Olean. Because I was able to drive myself to radiation, I didn’t need to take advantage of Ride to Recovery. I didn’t lose all of my hair, so I didn’t need the wig program, but I think it’s so important that these services are available in this area!” At Snider’s first radiation appointment, her doctors asked if her contact information could be shared with the ACS, which then reaches out to individuals diagnosed with cancer to offer free local services.

“Where I really did benefit from the ACS would be through the money raised for research grants. I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and there’s still not as much known about this cancer. I didn’t know anyone else who had it before I was diagnosed,” explained Snider.  As Morris pointed out, “No single nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization in the United States has invested more to find the causes and cures of cancer than the ACS. We have research grants all over the US including several right here in Western New York.” More information about the ACS’ cancer research can be found on their website: www.cancer.org.

Both Morris and Snider emphasize the most local impact of the ACS: their 1-800-227-2345 phone number, which provides help from the comfort of one’s home.  Morris explained, “This phone number is staffed 24 hours a day/365 days a year by trained Cancer Information Specialists that include Oncology Nurses. This number connects patients to our National Cancer Information Center which virtually points them to all services and help available to them. This includes any and all information regarding specific cancers, treatment options, side effects, coping with cancer, clinical trials, preventions, services, local programs, and more.”

There’s still time to get involved with this year’s Relay for Life event! Charlesworth invites everyone to join a Relay for Life team or start their own at www.relayforlife.org/thefairgroundsny. Those unable to participate during the event can also visit this website to donate to any one of the teams or individuals taking part in the Little Valley Relay for Life. “It’s a great family event,” said Snider, “and new participants are always welcome!”

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