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Victory laps in life's race


For five years, Mary Kusnierz was involved with the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in honor of her mother, who died of breast and colon cancer.

On Friday, the Laurel resident will participate in the Howard County relay for the first time as a cancer survivor. "I'm still doing this walk for my mom, but now it's got a different meaning," said Kusnierz, 45, who successfully completed treatment for breast and thyroid cancer this year.

Over 16 hours Friday night and Saturday morning, about 1,400 people will walk, jog or run around the track at Hammond High School to raise community awareness about cancer and to raise funds for the American Cancer Society.

The participants work in teams, taking turns circling the track. In between laps, they enjoy music, games, food and other festivities.

The Howard County relay raised more than $279,000 last year, but for many, the most important rewards are in the support and celebration among cancer survivors.

"When you walk in there, there's an immediate bond with people," Kusnierz said.

Like Relays across the country, the Howard event will kick off with an opening ceremony during which cancer survivors take the first lap, cheered on by family, friends and supporters.

Then, at 9 p.m., participants, family members and volunteers will light more than 4,000 candles inside paper luminaria labeled in memory or in honor of those who have battled cancer.

"It is a very touching, very heartfelt ceremony," said Kusnierz, a loan administrator at Columbia Bank. "More people would do this [take part in the Relay] if they could make it to the ceremony."

She said she had given money to the cancer society for a while before a friend suggested she attend the Relay for Life in Anne Arundel County in 2000.

"I went, and I was hooked," she said. "It was just awesome. ... Instead of just writing a check, you feel like you are accomplishing something."

After her mother died in 1990, Kusnierz said her motto was, "I refuse to become a victim." She got regular mammograms and exams to check for cancer.

Then, in April last year, less than four months after a mammogram showed no signs of cancer, she was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer that was difficult to detect close to the chest wall.

"It just hit me like a ton of bricks," Kusnierz said. "How humbling it is to realize you can do everything you can and still get cancer."

Just as she was completing chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to undergo further treatment.

The past two months have been the first in more than a year with no cancer treatments. Kusnierz said she doesn't dwell on her illnesses. She thinks of them as something she has dealt with and put behind her.

However, she said, she is ready to join the other survivors in the first lap around the track.

"I'm excited," she said, "especially to look back on everything I've been through."

Sheri Cohen was a cancer survivor when she first discovered the relay. She said, "You've got to get there to experience it, because you'll be forever changed."

Cohen, a Columbia resident who works with substance abuse programs, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, a type of Lymphoma, in 1993 when she was 29.

The diagnosis came after an extended bout of swollen lymph nodes, fatigue and other cold symptoms that would not go away.

"Of course, I was stunned," Cohen said. "I was numb when I drove home."

She said that she couldn't find a network of young people with cancer. Most support groups were made up of older people, and friends her age seemed unsure what to say or how to react.

"It was very isolating and very lonely," she said.

However, when she went to the relay for the first time in 1996 to see what it was about, she was moved. A year later, she was on crutches from knee surgery and could not participate. However, after that she became a regular volunteer and participant.

"It's just this feeling of belonging," she said. "Like I'm not alone."

Her sister and her nephews, now 13 and 15, are annual members of her team. At past relays, she has told her story at the opening ceremony and joined the survivors in the first lap.

"It is a celebration of hope and my survivorship," she said. "I want to give others hope."

Cohen agrees that reaching out to others is an important part of the event.

She said, "It is amazing to see how many people are out on one night."

She added. "That's what we're all [at the relay] for, these people right here and those that couldn't be here."

The Relay for Life - including the opening ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Friday and the luminaria ceremony at 9 p.m. - is open to the public and will be held at Hammond High School, 8800 Guilford Road, Columbia.

There will be a walk for children up to age 14, starting at 9 a.m. Saturday and a closing ceremony at 11 a.m.

Information: www.howard, or Debra Wilkenloh, 410-997-8700.

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