For nearly 30 years, Laurel resident Nancy Becraft has been fighting to help fund research on a cure for cancer, not as a survivor but as a caregiver.
Alongside her husband, Wayne Becraft, she says the family was a strong support system for a few cousins who were battling cancer, scheduling doctors' visits, providing transportation and adhering to treatment procedures. But in May 1988, the Becraft family was struck with the unexpected when their daughter, Michelle, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
"We lost Michelle when she was 22 years old in 1990," Nancy Becraft said, also a mother of two sons. "It's not easy losing a child and it doesn't matter what age they are. But, she really didn't lose her spirit. She fought all the way."
Becraft continues the fight in memory of Michelle by participating in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life of Laurel. The volunteer-led event enters its 17th year on Saturday, June 11, with hopes of raising $100,000 for cancer research.
Individuals and teams will walk and run the relay from 5 p.m. Saturday night to 5 a.m. Sunday morning at McCullough Field on the corner of Eighth and Montgomery streets, beginning with a survivor's lap to honor those who have defeated cancer.
This year's theme is "Lights, Camera, Relay," with people adding a film or television aspect to their team.
While nearly 300 participants have already registered online, Nick Farano, community manager for the American Cancer Society, said attendance in past events indicates a possible crowd of 500 to 800. Last year's event raised just under $96,000.
"I love it because the community really comes out," Farano said. "Unfortunately, you're hard-pressed to find somebody who hasn't been touched by cancer. I think that's why it has sustained and grown over the years. We have over 5,000 [Relay events] across the world and we're very proud of our one here in Laurel."
Relay for Life of Laurel began in 1999 at Laurel High School, Farano said, in collaboration with the city and the American Cancer Society. At the time, Becraft was working with Laurel Parks and Recreation, helping Relay representatives find a meeting room where they could organize the event.
After learning about her daughter's battle, representatives named Becraft co-chair the following year. Becraft said she later left the city employees' Relay team, forming a family team with her husband and sons, Jeff and Mark.
"We have a team called, 'Michelle's Best Buddies,' because Michelle always called her friends her best buddies," she said.
Becraft said their team's theme this year is "Jurassic Park: Making Cancer Extinct."
Prior to Relay for Life, Becraft said her family also honored Michelle through a scholarship at Laurel High School, which recognized its 26th recipient last month.
Volunteer Kristy Murray said she joined Relay's cause around 2008 and she's still amazed by the city's generosity when the organization begins event preparations each September.
"The city of Laurel pretty much donates everything that we need on the field," Murray said, including generators, extension cords, trash and recycling bins and police security. "These are things that other relays have to pay out-of-pocket, so we're fortunate that the city donates all of that. Our budget out-of-pocket is extremely low just because of that."
Following the survivors lap, Murray said everyone remembers those who lost their battles with cancer during a luminaria ceremony, lighting candles or glow sticks inside white paper bags with names and memories on them.
Other themed laps will also occur throughout the evening, she said. Teams don costumes, such as red, white and blue decor for a patriotic lap or decorative bras to celebrate "Bras for the Cause" in the fight against breast cancer.
"One person from your team is always walking the track," Murray said. "The idea is that cancer never sleeps, so neither do we. Cancer patients don't get the option to take a time out or have a break, so we try to go through the whole experience."
Farano said about 30,000 Marylanders will be diagnosed with cancer by the end of the year, with 11,000 succumbing to the disease; and funding from Relay is a significant contribution to cancer research..
"It is clear that while we are making great strides and saving more lives than ever, there's still plenty of work to be done," he said.
Becraft said progress has not gone unnoticed, acknowledging successful chemotherapy medications as well as brain tumor treatments released in recent years; one in particular that wasn't ready in 1988.
"One of the treatments that they wanted to give Michelle in the very beginning of her diagnosis — we decided not to do it because we knew it would make her into a vegetable or kill her if it didn't go well," Becraft said. "Many years later, we heard from a friend that someone with a brain tumor had that kind of treatment and it had been perfected enough that they were able to survive the brain tumor."
In addition to more funding, Becraft said she hopes to see more volunteers and participants at this year's Relay for Life of Laurel and join her in finding the cure.
"Knowing that a lot of people out there are still fighting, hopefully, during my lifetime, we'll find more cures for more cancers."
To sign up or donate to Relay for Life of Laurel, go to http://main.acsevents.org/site/TR/RelayForLife/RFLCY16SA?pg=entry&fr_id=70901.