Less than three months ago, the main coordinator for the Relay for Life in Sampson resigned, leaving some scrambling to coordinate activities for the annual celebration aimed at celebrating cancer survival, supporting treatment efforts and remembering those lost in the battle. They scrambled indeed, and Friday night’s result was something special.
As people began to show up early Friday evening under a sweltering sun that saw temperatures reach the 90s, Michelle Parker beamed with pride.
Parker, who has been involved in Relay since its inception in Sampson County back in 1996, was one of the coordinators this year. She praised the joint effort of a handful of people and the many volunteers who pitched in. She knows the event is a fraction of what it was in its heyday over a decade ago, but that doesn’t matter.
“Attendance has gone down and the team number has gone down, but that’s not just in Sampson County — that’s everywhere. The way I look at this, the people who came out here tonight and who come out here every year really care and I’m here for those survivors,” said Parker.
The annual effort hit a snag in mid-March with the resignation of Sampson’s American Cancer Society (ACS) representative, who chairs the annual event.
“We had four people, myself and three others, and we divvied everything up,” Parker noted, shouting out Aundria Grady, Carolyn Faircloth and Rhonda Lockamy, as well as Morgan Sills, who stepped in as Sampson’s ACS liaison. “We’re doing a great job.”
There were 15 teams who raised money for Relay, for which 27 torches and 581 luminaries were also purchased toward the cause. The ACS set Sampson’s goal at $125,000 for this year. Last year, there was more than $90,000 raised. While this year’s goal may not be reached, it’s not about that, said Parker.
“Because it’s smaller, it’s going to be better,” she said. “We’re going to have a heartfelt night.”
At around 7 p.m., dozens of survivors made their way around the track at Dark Horse Stadium. A couple amid the crowd were Ronald Ellis and his son, Brandon Ellis. Ronald held hands with wife Theresa as Brandon walked beside them.
A longtime firefighter and emergency medical technician, Ronald was diagnosed in April 2017 with glioblastoma, the most aggressive cancer that begins within the brain. There is no cure for his cancer. Brandon is a three-year cancer survivor himself and this was his third walk. It was his father’s first.
“I never thought I’d be here,” said Ronald, who helped out with the logistics of Relay some 10 years ago, “not on this side of the fence. You just never know.”
When he was diagnosed, Ronald was told that he could live a year, maybe 10. Probably not longer. But he doesn’t see his condition as a death sentence. It’s an obstacle, one he tries not to let get in his way.
“I don’t know how long I have, but I don’t say ‘why me,’” he remarked, noting children with cancer and people suffering far worse ailments. “If I get cured, I do. If I don’t, I think I’m living right, and that’s all I can do. You can’t crawl into a hole and die. You just have to live the life you can live.”
The first Sampson County Relay for Life was held June 1, 1996 and the county raised $12,000. The local event peaked in 2006 when more than $400,000 was raised for the cause. Over the years, more than $3 million has been raised as part of the Sampson event alone. Along with Parker, Denise Scronce and her family have helped that local effort a great deal.
Scronce was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2016 and the third of her parents’ daughters to receive such a diagnosis. She lost her sister Dawn to cancer and her sister Cindi Norris is now a 22-year cancer survivor. Denise and Larry Scronce carried the Relay for Life torch into the stadium to kick off 2016’s event, just months after Denise was diagnosed. Larry was diagnosed just a year later.
Friday marked one year, almost to the day, of Larry’s cancer diagnosis. He has myelodysplastic syndromes, or MDS, in which cells in the bone marrow are abnormal and there are issues with making new blood cells.
Larry and Denise pressed their paint-coated hands on a white sheet on Friday night, joining the many other survivors, including Norris and their relatives Jeff and Terri Byrd, cancer survivors of 21 years and one year, respectively. The family looked at the 21-year and 22-year markings that accompanied Norris and Jeff Byrd’s prints.
“Not a day goes by we don’t think about it,” said Jeff.
As Larry talked about undergoing recent rounds of chemotherapy, he looked over the many purple and pink hand prints. He said two decades of cancer survival is something to celebrate. As he preps for another round of chemo later this month, he said that’s the goal.
“That would be great,” he stated.