Rallying for a changed Relay For Life, from a cancer survivor

I feel strange writing this, having never attended a full Relay event at Virginia Tech. Though Relay for Life is a one-day event, it still results in a year-long a buildup that litters my inboxes and my friends’ social media pages with videos of people trying to use cancer and survivorship as an identity. As a cancer survivor, it feels like something I experience everyday. It hurts to see ignorance, so much so that attending would rub salt on my open wound.

The sound of an oven timer startles me; it’s a noise that impersonates my IV pole beeping at 2 a.m. That sharp sound, like Relay For Life, will always feel like a trigger that sends me back to an ambiguous and out-of-body place. Coming to a school 212 miles away from home was the only way, or so I thought, to escape the cancer of my past. However, it’s hard to stay in hiding when everyone is so present.

When I toured Virginia Tech, I knew Relay For Life was a huge fundraiser the school participated in: A day of activities, music, dance performances, baked goods and philanthropy, centered around community and remembrance. I remember thinking it was an elaborate performance, and wondering why we had to convince people to donate money.

Originally, this piece was supposed to be about the possible marketing flaws of Relay For Life. By exploring pages of ACS financial statements and ant-Relay for Life blogs, I realized that I was using research to cover up discomfort of telling my own story, and answering the hard question — why won’t I rally for Relay?

Relay For Life puts donations for cancer research and prevention at the forefront of the event, understandably. Aside from The Survivor Lap, the large event, in past videos of Tech’s Relay event, doesn’t mention survivorship, the effects and mindset after cancer, or even cancer advocacy in the local area. On the American Cancer Society’s website, one can find local resources like Blacksburg Transit transportation and counseling services for cancer patients. That’s it. There are no housing options, no out-patient education programs or local cancer nonprofits.

As someone who has worked at a nonprofit in the New River Valley for three years, I understand how difficult it can be for families to obtain resources that seem to be more available in larger cities. I was fortunate enough to live in Richmond, where one of the largest cancer research hospitals in the country resides, and have access to amazing support groups, such as Connor’s Heroes. It’s the smaller nonprofits, the ones that get to know your parent’s name, the ones that bring Sweet Frog to every chemo –– those are the ones that helped me fight, during and after treatment, and were more present than my friends and family. That presence should be larger in the New River Valley.

The event has potential to make survivors perspectives more noticeable, but it’s a lot of marketing effort that could be redirected to the local level. Relay becomes a contest, which is good for fundraising, but loses sight of the people who fight even after remission. Make Relay more like Big Event –– send teams to visit patients, organize safe events for patients to attend, like a prom, make gift baskets. Make it less about the event, more about the people and the impact you personally make.

But, instead of completely getting rid of the long-standing Virginia Tech tradition, let’s reinvent it with more survivor’s experience, more education of cancer after remission and more emphasis on community outreach. Cancer will most likely never leave our lives, and it’s something I will carry in mine forever. It’s okay to stand together, break down the walls and let others hear what we have to say.

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