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Childhood friends take the helm for Laurel Relay for Life

Relay for LifeAmerican Cancer SocietyColon CancerMercy Medical Center (Baltimore, Maryland)

When planning a grand-scale Sweet Sixteen sleepover celebrating life, love and the fierce fight against cancer, it doesn't hurt to share family history.

Kristy Murray and Mandi Phillips — co-chairwomen of the 16th annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Laurel at McCullough Field this weekend — played softball together and have been since they were tweens.                                                              

"My mother and her mother were best friends," Phillips said.

"And we were best friends," Murray added.

In 2009, when Murray's grandmother succumbed to pancreatic cancer and Phillips' mom, Pam Phillips, underwent radical intestinal surgery and chemotherapy at Mercy Medical Center, the two young women naturally turned to each other for support.

"I didn't like driving into Baltimore city alone, and Kristy would always go with me. Kristy and her family were very supportive," Phillips said.

Mandi and Pam Phillips and Murray joined the survivors committee at their first Relay for Life at McCullough Field five years ago. Phillips remembers her mom being so sick from chemo that she had to be driven around the lap in a cart.

Today, Pam Phillips is an energetic five-year survivor who will walk with her daughter at the relay on June 7. Murray will join them, of course, to honor her grandmother.

In 2010, in the afterglow of their success organizing a fundraising dinner at Pallotti High School, Murray volunteered her best friend to work with her as co-chairwoman of the Laurel relay. Huck Bothner, of Laurel, and Linda Holt were vacating the positions.

Murray and Phillips said Bothner, who died of cancer May 27, served as an invaluable mentor.

Pam Phillips' battle with cancer profoundly affected her daughter's journey. Last year, Mandi Phillips went to work for Dr. Armando Sardo, the surgical oncologist who treated her mother, and she's recently been promoted to surgical coordinator.

The mother of two young children and a day care teacher, Murray said she usually prefers to let Phillips take the lead. Phillips said that Murray is the creative half of the co-chairwoman position, and that she serves more as the business manager.

"After years of doing this together, we don't even have to talk about who's going to do what. We just do it," Phillips said.

This will be their fifth year as Relay for Life co-chairwomen, and Phillips and Murray are ready to pass the torch and continue their work on relay committees.

Phillips, 27, said the most exhilarating moment in the experience for her has been standing on stage at McCullough Field taking in the outpouring of support and participation.

"For me, it's been at the end of every relay," Murray, 29, added. "It's like, 'Gosh, we did it.' "

Executive committee member Darlene Brecht, of Laurel, said that Phillips and Murray have brought a fresh perspective because "they're younger and full of energy.

"They've brought new excitement, especially during the overnight hours, by introducing new games and special laps," Brecht said.

Brecht and her husband, Robin, both cancer survivors, have attended every Relay for Life of Laurel with their family and are luminaria committee co-chairs.  Darlene Brecht said they got involved with the relay in 1999, after her mother, Beverly Hubbuch, was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 1998.

Hubbuch won that battle and attended the Laurel relays until she succumbed to a newly diagnosed brain tumor on New Years Day in 2007.

Robin Brecht served as chairman of the Laurel relay from 2006 to 2009, prior to Bothner taking over.

"Huck was a very inspirational person who always had a positive outlook," Robin Brecht said. "He was always smiling and fighting."

Executive committee member Nancy Becraft served as relay chairwoman from 2000-2003. Brecht calls Becraft "Mrs. Relay for Life of Laurel" and said she's part of the reason the relay has survived.

Becraft, who lost her 22-year-old daughter, Michelle, to brain cancer in 1990, started the first of about 10 fundraising teams competing in the first Laurel relay in 1999.

She said she's noticed the dedications of luminaria — white paper bags with candle inside that glow at night during the rely — shift toward honoring more survivors.

"The luminaria is a really special point of the relay," Becraft said. "It's very emotional. There are a lot of tears, but many are happy tears because so many are fighting the cancer and winning."

Becraft's relay team is named "Michelle's Best Buddies" after her late daughter.

"If Michelle were alive, she would be doing this," Becraft said. "I always feel her presence."

The city of Laurel donates the use of McCullough Field; the overhead lights; police, fire and rescue services, including an onsite ambulance and fire truck; and the banner that hangs across Main Street advertising the relay. The executive committee meets at the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department hall, and Laurel police are participating in the relay as a team.

"My mom always said it takes a village," Phillips said. "And we [Relay for Life of Laurel] consider ourselves a village of hope."

Team effort

At 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 7, overhead lights donated by the city of Laurel will go dark on the grounds of McCullough Field as a legion of candles light the night in honor of survivors, their caregivers and loved ones lost to the war on cancer.

Robin Brecht describes the brief silence to follow as the climactic moment in every Relay for Life of Laurel. Hundreds of luminary bags and candles will spell out "hope" on the basketball court and line the field along Montgomery Street.

Darlene Brecht said that more than 300 bags and candles have already been dedicated — Robin Brecht said he wants to see at least 1,000 lit — and an unlimited supply will be available at the luminaria tent Saturday for a suggested donation of $10 from 3 until 8:30 p.m.

Robin Brecht said that he hopes this year's relay will raise $125,000, $10,000 more than last year.

As of May 30, Michelle's Bet Buddies had raised $6,456 at the website relayforlife.org/laurelmd — second to the Love, Hope, Relay team (led by Darlene Brecht) at $7,515, and followed by Team Eric (led by Deborah Trowbridge) at $5,178.

Team Eric formed last year to honor 43-year-old Eric Worman of Old Town who was diagnosed with colon cancer.  Eric's wife, Draga, said that she was driving home from visiting Eric in the hospital and saw the Relay for Life banner on Main Street.

"I took that banner as a literal 'sign' that there was something I could actively do to support the fight against cancer," Draga Worman said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Relay for LifeAmerican Cancer SocietyColon CancerMercy Medical Center (Baltimore, Maryland)
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