Walkers endure heat to beat cancer

LORAIN – Saturday’s sweltering 90-plus temperatures couldn’t keep them away from the city’s sixth annual Relay for Life.

“We had a very good turnout despite the weather,” Lorain’s Relay for Life chairwoman Mary Ann Campana said Saturday evening. “We had some sprinklers set up to help people cool off, and we had the depot with air conditioning so they could go inside for a while. And there was the dunk tank that they were happy to go in.”

So was Campana, who got drenched by the first throw – and by nearly 15 others that found the target at Lorain’s Black River Landing where the American Cancer Society fundraising event began at noon and was to continue overnight until 9 a.m. this morning.

About 15 teams walked laps in an open area between two rows of open-air tents sponsored by each team.

“We had about 250 volunteers and a couple hundred survivors,” Campana said. “I’d say we had as big a crowd as in the past despite the heat … about 1,000. To have this turnout in this city and this economy when times are so tough, we just appreciate it beyond belief.”

The day’s unrelenting heat – eased a bit by a sporadic breeze off Lake Erie – had seen most all of the 75 to 85 purple-shirted cancer survivors depart by mid to late afternoon. One older woman was taken by ambulance from the site after she got light-headed.

“She didn’t want to leave but her daughter convinced her it was a good idea to be checked out,” Campana said.

A number of people made it clear they were there for the long haul, such as Melanie Smith, 25, and her cousin, Heather Traster, 33, who were part of the “Smile for Shelley” team.

The team was walking in support of Melanie’s sister, Shelley Smith, who died age 20 from bone cancer following a rough two-and-a-half year ordeal that saw the amputation of one of her legs.

The three made the relay circuit together in 2006, the second year of the Lorain Relay of Life.

“We had a wheelchair for Shelley, and we all went around,” Smith said. “We promised to all come back and do the team the next year, but she didn’t make it.”

The loss of Shelley has motivated Smith and Traster even more.

“This is something my sister would have loved,” Smith said. “She was really into doing activities, making people more aware and funding a cure.”

The cousins had even more reason to stay. Melanie’s dad, Michael Smith, 57, is battling renal cancer.

“It’s in his lungs now,” his daughter said. “He was here for the survivor’s lap (the event’s opening lap). We all walked it together.”

Cheryl Guzman, 46, and her daughter, Melissa Rivera, 22, were first-timers to the Relay for Life. A Cleveland Clinic nurse who works with cancer patients, Rivera had walked 30 laps by midafternoon.

“If I can care for cancer patients every day in my work, then why not come here and do this?” Rivera said.

Guzman, who admitted to doing only two laps by about 4 p.m., talked about her parents, Charles and Phyllis Gilchrist, each of whom contracted lung cancer. Her mother died at age 56 in 1990, while her father passed away in 2004 at age 72.

“He also got mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos,” Guzman said. “You go pretty quickly with that.”

Campana said she feels the event will hit and may exceed its fundraising goal of $50,000.

Less than three-quarters of a mile south of the Relay for Life site, city streets were wet, and water was standing in puddles.

“They canceled baseball games at the city park, but the sun never stopped shining here,” Campana said. “That just reinforces our attitude that this is very special.”

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