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Celebrate, remember, fight back

Relay for Life teams walk for cancer research

June 17, 2012
By JOE SUTTER, , Messenger News

Susan Ahlers Leman and Shelly Sanford, honorary survivors for this year's Relay for Life, illustrate why it's called a relay.

Leman found an unusual lump which turned out to be breast cancer in July 2010, the very week Sanford had finished her breast cancer treatment.

"As soon as I received my diagnosis I talked to Shelly. She was the first person I called," said Leman. "I knew she had gone through it. She had just finished it."

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Susan Ahlers Leman, left, and Shelly Sanford meet in the lobby at Trinity Regional Medical Center next to the pillar reading “We serve, Christ heals.” Leman and Sanford said prayer and faith was very important to them while battling cancer. They are the honorary survivors for this year’s Relay for Life.

"That's our theme here," said Sanford. "We talk about the relay, and handing the baton off to somebody else. That's how it was with us."

The two women were friends ever since they met in a card group. Leman said having a close friend to offer support was vitally important.

"She was wonderful," Leman said. "She understood things that no one else was going to understand. And I feel badly because she didn't have that when she started her journey.

Fact Box

If you go:

What: Webster County Relay for Life

When: 6 p.m. Friday to midnight

Where: Dodger Stadium

What: Opening ceremonies, parade of teams, survivor's lap, caregiver walk and luminaria ceremony

"She told me once - and made me cry - she believed one reason she was diagnosed with cancer was so she could help me through it."

Leman, in turn, completed her treatment and moved into a similar support role for a friend of the family who was going through a similar experience.

Both survivors said having a good support group was what got them through their treatments.

"It was my friends, my family, my church family, and the prayers," Sanford said. "I'm a very strong believer in the power of prayer. I know it is because of that I'm here today. It's truly God's will.

"Both of us feel very strongly this was placed in our lives for a reason," she added. "It's so we can help others."

"As honorary chairs, part of our role is to represent other survivors. ... So we're speaking on behalf of a lot of folks," Leman said. "There are a number of folks who don't or can't tell their story, and we've been blessed with many opportunities to share what we've gone through.

"I think that, certainly everyone's story is unique, and we can't capture the essence of everyone's story, but I think there are some universal emotions and experiences that we will do our best to convey."

Both said it was a great honor to be chosen to share at the relay.

The honorary caregiver for this relay will be Mary Gertrude Keefe, better known as Sister Trudy. She is a chaplain at Trinity Regional Medical Center.

"I am also a survivor twice, of breast cancer and cervical cancer," Keefe said. "As much as we dislike going through these things, we can use them to the advantage of more understanding and compassion for others."

Keefe has been working as a chaplain since 1982, and has been at Trinity for 10 years. Part of her job is to help people through the many spiritual and emotional effects of a devastating disease like cancer.

"In all my assignments, I've always been given the most critical, the dying, the emergencies," Keefe said. "I can speak to family members and the dying about what might be happening, teach families how to be with someone who is so sick, or who's dying.

"They also call me for patients who have diagnoses that are hard for the patient to accept.

"When know I've done everything from talk with them, sharing what I know, teaching, giving them coffee, calling a pastor if they have one, calling family members - all that is part of what I believe is vital for families in trauma time."

About speaking at the Relay, Keefe said, "It's quite an honor. It hasn't really sunk in yet."

The Relay will begin at 6 p.m. Friday and end at midnight, at Dodger Stadium. After the opening ceremonies, there will be a parade of teams, a survivor's lap, and caregiver walk. The luminaria ceremony will be at 9:30 p.m.

Leman described the luminaries.

"You can decorate a white bag in honor of a survivor or someone who's lost their battle. They put them around the track, and later in the evening they turn off all the stadium lights, and it's really powerful and sad, that there are that many luminaries. It touches so many lives."

But it's not a sad night, Leman and Sanford said.

"It's definitely a celebration," Leman said.

"My first year we did it, my oldest son and my younger one had groups of their friends, all these teenagers just showed up to have fun," Sanford said. "Last year they had somebody teaching Zumba in the middle of the field during part of it. People were out there dancing."

They said they hoped a lot of people would come out and support the celebration of life.

Leman said, "It's never too late to donate dollars, and we want to have as many people as we can pack that track."



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