Donna Holt was healthy and strong, a breast cancer survivor. But while training for the Iron Girl Columbia Triathlon in 2009, she was surprised to find she couldn't complete the practice swim. Turns out, the breast cancer she had conquered in 1998 had returned and metastasized.
"I had been practicing and training with two liters of water in my lungs," she said.
On June 8, the West Laurel resident, who is experiencing success in an experimental treatment program at Johns Hopkins, took part in the Survivor Lap at the Relay for Life for the Western Howard County chapter of the American Cancer Society.
Holt, who is 67 and wore a stylish dirty blond wig under a bright pink fedora-style hat, also participated last year, and was catching up with a fellow Survivor Lap walker, Colleen Colburn, of Highland. The two had met at the 2011 event. Colburn, 77, is a "17-year survivor," she said. She underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer, and now works to stay healthy by eating a lot of vegetables and walks three miles, six days a week.
The Western Howard County Relay for Life took place at Western Regional Park. The rules are simple: Individuals form teams and raise money, then walk a concrete loop that circles through the park, starting at 7 p.m. and finishing at 6 a.m. At least one member of the team must be on the track at any given time. Participants pay $10 to register, and also buy luminaries for $10, in honor of people who had or have cancer.
The Relay for Life was inspired by Tacoma, Wash., colorectal surgeon Dr. Gordy Klatt, who ran on a local track for 24 hours in 1985 to raise money for the American Cancer Society. The following year, 19 teams competed in the first Relay for Life.
The events all have a similar structure. They start with a Survivor Lap and Caregiver Lap, honor loved ones with a luminaria ceremony in which candles are lit, and culminate with a Fight Back ceremony, with a pledge to take action and raise awareness.
The Western Howard County event, now in its sixth year, has grown over time, and this year was expected to surpass its goal of raising $117,000 for the American Cancer Society, said Claudia Klahre, community manager for the American Cancer Society's South Atlantic Division.
Klahre said that 339 people, including 21 teams, participated in last week's event, and that so far $81,345 has been raised. Fundraising will continue through the year, and the money will be used both for local programs and for research.
One such program is Road to Recovery, with volunteer drivers who take Howard County residents to cancer treatment appointments. The service is free, said Mary Holland, 67, of Fulton, who said she met her best friend, Janene Oettel, through the program. "She was just like a sister," Holland said of Oettel, who died in March.
Klahre said participation may have been a bit higher than usual this year because a similar event, the Howard County Relay for Life, scheduled for June 1 at Long Reach High School, had been canceled because of stormy weather that included a tornado warning.
The weather at Western Regional Park could not have been more pleasant. It was a cool, clear and breezy night, and the atmosphere at the Relay for Life was festive. Tents and folding chairs were set up in the grassy field in the middle of the track. Fund-raising and information booths lined the inside of the track. Music played.
But for many participants, tears were close to the surface, even as they smiled and chatted and caught up with friends. Many of the luminaries lining the paths honored people who had died of cancer.
Beth Halley of Woodbine, a founder of the event in her role on the Organizational Committee, choked up as she remembered two committee members who "we've lost to cancer, Bernice Rutledge and Colleen Warner.
Cathy Gabriel of Ellicott City was a member of a team called Sassy Sisters, all wearing shirts with a photograph of her mother, Mary Ellen Sadowski, on the back. Sadowski died of lung cancer in October 2008, Gabriel said. Participants including Gabriel's children, Nathan, 11; Claudia, 7; and Ellen, 10.
The group, participating for a fourth year, was formed by stay-at-home moms who met when their children were toddlers, said Gabriel. "A couple of us had lost our moms," she said.
"I'm on Team Second Chance," said MaryAnne Fiorita of Rockville, taking photographs of luminaries alongside her husband, Guido Adelfio, who is undergoing treatment at the National Institutes of Health for an aggressive form of prostate cancer. The team raised about $8,000, she said.
"I'm walking for my husband," she said. Raising money and walking, she said, "helps you control something you can't control. You're doing something so you don't feel so helpless."