by Jill Von Wedel
Tears, pain, heartbreak and despair? Not at this event.
Despite hardship, illness and loss, the participants at the 2006 Gwinnett Relay for Life were anything but somber. Nearly 2,000 survivors turned out with friends and family to raise money for the fight against cancer.
"Number one on our to-do list is to show people that they can survive cancer and to give hope to survivors," says American Cancer Society area manager Randy Redner. "When you walk around the track with 2,000 other survivors, you know you're not alone and can survive." This year”s Relay raised more than $2.2 million for cancer research.
The strength and hope of these survivors and their families is a testament to the human spirit, and the indomitable will to survive overwhelming odds.
Pictures of hope
Nan Hudson smiles and straightens her shiny gold crown, grinning broadly and looking healthy.
But a year ago, things weren”t looking so bright.
"I was here last year without one hair on my head," Hudson remembers. "I was so weak I could hardly walk the track."
Hudson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin”s lymphoma in November 2004. During her treatment, she was cared for by her friends, family and neighbors who cooked for her family and helped out.
"Now, here I am strong, with hair and able to walk really well," Hudson boasts of her second relay. "I attribute it to the support of my friends and family, and God, and the doctors and nurses who took care of me."
Hudson is embraced by her neighbor, Renee Wickham.
"We were very scared at one time that we wouldn”t have her here," Wickham admits. The Trickum Middle School teacher helped Hudson”s family by cooking for them and lending her support and friendship.
"It”s unreal to see all the people who”ve survived cancer here, from just a few months to 20-year survivors," Hudson says.
Nearby, brain tumor survivor Artie Godzik is cooking out with his family.
"I had [the surgery] done and I survived it," Godzik says. "I was in the hospital for two days and out of work for months, but I went back to work and now I”m doing good."
Laughing, Godzik removes his baseball hat and points to the bald spot on his head where he was treated.
Everywhere you look, survivors proudly sport shiny gold crowns and light purple sashes – courtesy of Queens for a Cure.
"I began Queens for a Cure three years ago as a senior in high school," 20-year-old Lacie Smith says. "Since then, we have raised more than $20,000 for cancer research."
In high school, Smith was doubly devastated by the disease.
"I lost both of my grandfathers to cancer when I was a senior," Smith says. "Before that, I became involved in the survivors lap with my grandfathers. After that, I started my own team to help in the community." The organization, which partners with the American Cancer Society, holds an annual Miss Gwinnett County Relay for Life Benefit Pageant as its main fundraiser.
Smith is amazed by the huge growth of her team. "It”s gotten bigger than my wildest imagination – I never dreamed it could have been this big." The team raised nearly $15,000 over the Relay weekend.
In the Queens” tent, Smith and her teammates crown survivor Joan Johnson and pose for photos while Johnson”s daughters look on.
"It”s been 13 years and I thought I was cured in 1993, but I wasn”t, so I”m still working on it," Johnson says. "It came back and it”s gone all through the body now."
But Johnson is not giving up.
"We”re definitely going to make it, and I have my girls to help me along,"