Lights in the Night

Cancer survivor finds peace in fundraiser participation

Story by Kat Franchino

Candles for the Luminaria Ceremony sit on a plastic table during the University of Montana's Relay for Life. Participants were invited to light candles and place them in decorated paper bags lining the Oval. The Luminarias represent those who either died from cancer or are currently battling cancer. (Photo by Kat Franchino)

The clock of Main Hall chimed once, signaling 10:30 p.m. and the start of the Luminaria Ceremony. Participants gathered at plastic tables covered with white candles in shallow plastic dishes. They cupped the candles in their hands and lit the wicks. The lap began.

There was no talking as the walkers slowly circled the Oval. One by one, they dropped the candles in the paper Luminaria bags outlining the lawn at the center of the University of Montana’s Missoula campus. Each bag was decorated with illustrations and the name of a person who either died from or was currently battling cancer.

UM Relay for Life Chair, Alyse Johnson, watched from the sidelines as the bags lit up one by one. Johnson, 22, is a cancer survivor. For 10 years she has been cancer-free.

Johnson was just 11 years old when she was diagnosed with ovarian germ cell cancer. The cancer invaded her reproductive cells before spreading to her left lung. Had it not been stopped, it would have continued to her brain.

To get rid of the tumor and stop the cancer, Johnson’s right ovary was removed and she underwent chemotherapy. Ten years later, the only physical reminders are a wide, dark scar on her stomach marking the place where surgeons removed the ovary, as well as a large scar on her side, indicating where cancer growths were removed from her left lung and remaining ovary.

Relay for Life started 25 years ago when a Tacoma, Wash., surgeon, Dr. Gordy Klatt, walked around a university track for 24 hours, racking up more than 83 miles. Friends paid money to walk or run with him. Klatt walked the first Relay for Life alone, but now relays involve teams of people, with team members taking turns walking the course.

This April night on the Oval, chairs and trashcans replaced the sprawling bodies, Frisbees and bikes that had occupied the grass earlier in the day. The committee had gone out of its way to make sure the teams would have plenty of entertainment. Earlier in the evening a swing dance teacher had been brought in to give lessons to relay participants, and later the UM Relay for Life would host Bingo games and a cakewalk.

As committee members began to set up for the cakewalk, resting walkers wandered into one of several large white tents to re-energize with slices of pizza. Milk sat in a bin of ice alongside the track.

“Take some milk,” offered a volunteer as walkers passed, but it was chilly and the bin stayed full.

“We’ve had a lot of good energy,” Johnson said looking around. Despite the cold, 38 teams totaling 285 people were participating in the event. Johnson estimated that, counting the teams, 400 to 500 people filtered in throughout the night. Nearly $18,400 was raised at the event.

Cancer is an illness that predominantly, but not exclusively, afflicts the elderly. According to 2007 Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results data, nearly 2,000 per 100,000 people between the ages of 65 and 73 were diagnosed with cancer. This is compared to the 17 per 100,000 people in the under-20 age range. It is extremely rare to get cancer as a child.

Years ago, my great-grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told no one. Had it not been her turn to host Thanksgiving dinner, and had the dinner not fallen on the same day as one of her chemotherapy appointments, maybe no one in my family would ever had found out about her cancer.

Cancer survivor Alyse Johnson was the chair of the 2010 UM Relay for Life. (Photo by Kat Franchino)

Johnson, on the other hand, openly shares her story with anyone who wishes to know.

“I wouldn’t take back having cancer for anything,” she said. “Having the experience of having cancer gave me so much.”

Her illness, she says, brought her family closer together. Her sister became a pharmacist because of it, and Johnson feels a sense of purpose to help fundraise for efforts like the American Cancer Society.

Yet when she first starts dating someone, she keeps her story to herself.

“I don’t like to share immediately because I’m afraid it might change the way they may feel about me or treat me,” she said. “I’m not afraid they won’t like me, but rather afraid they’ll feel sorry for me and pity me or like me just because of my story or something weird.”

Johnson believes that having cancer at such a young age caused her to mature faster than most girls. Unlike many middle school girls, she was confident and stuck to her beliefs, regardless of what others did.

“I still have never ever smoked pot or cigarettes once,” she said. “It’s because of my refusal to give up my morals just because everyone else is doing it.”

The likelihood of Johnson getting cancer again is extremely rare, and if it does return, it will not be ovarian germ cell cancer. But since she underwent chemotherapy and only has one ovary, she is unsure if she will be able to have children. One of chemotherapy’s risks is sterility. Johnson makes sure to get yearly blood tests and a physical, as well as have her moles examined. Her uncle died of malignant melanoma.

All the bags glowed a soft yellow as the walkers completed the Luminaria Ceremony lap. It was cold and Johnson sat shivering in a sweatshirt, her blonde hair cascading over her shoulders.

“I’m just so happy with tonight,” she said.

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