Vineyard residents pride themselves on being tough. They brave cold, barren winters, prohibitively high gas prices and interminable summer crowds.
But those Islanders battling cancer are among the hardiest. They face high medical costs, uncomfortable ferry rides and long, painful drives to oncologists and radiation centers. Cancer engages them in emotional, physical and financial struggles each day.
Each year, rain or shine, the Island community walks together all night in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life to recognize their resilience.
The walking begins at 3 p.m. this afternoon at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School track and concludes tomorrow morning at 11. Four hundred people are expected to attend, including 26 teams of walkers. A special ceremony followed by a lap around the track for cancer survivors begins at 6 tonight, and later the lighting of hundreds of luminaria will line the track as darkness falls.
Tammy King, this year’s chief Relay for Life organizer, moved to the Vineyard from California for the sense of community on the Island. A year ago, she had only felt the effects of cancer through friends. But when her husband lost part of his gall bladder, liver, and intestine to cancer last year, the cause came home.
“You have a helpless feeling when you’re going through it,” Mrs. King said. “You sit there and hear the words [the doctor is speaking] and you don’t know what to do. Relay provides hope, and a way to help people.”
Last year, the Vineyard Relay for Life raised more than $97,000 before expenses to benefit the American Cancer Society’s cancer support services and funding research. This year, the Vineyard’s ninth relay event, organizers hope to reach the $100,000 mark.
“I really feel like we’re making a difference,” Mrs. King said. “There are a lot more treatments now, so that instead of a death sentence, [cancer] has become more of a chronic illness.”
Despite advances in research, state-of-the-art cancer treatments pose unique challenges for Vineyard residents who must travel to Falmouth, Hyannis or Boston to for specialized medical care.
The Clark Cancer Center opened last year in Falmouth, increasing access to advanced oncology treatments for Islanders.
Kevin Searle, an Islander who was diagnosed with rectal cancer in December 2010, visited a Falmouth oncologist regularly. He was provided with free boat tickets through the American Cancer Society, and vans from the cancer society’s Road to Recovery initiative shuttled him between the ferry and the hospital. Surgeries and radiation forced him to take the summer off from work, but he stayed afloat economically thanks to help from his brother, the earnings from a fundraiser in his name and the cancer society. Over the past year, 90 cancer patients on Cape Cod and the Islands received 1,641 rides through the cancer society.
Mr. Searle calls the entire Island his support group. “The Island community is unbelievable,” he said. During a short interview with the Gazette this week as he sat on the corner of Summer and Main streets in Edgartown, seven people stopped to lean out of their cars and ask, “Hey Kevin, how are you doing? Anything I can do?” Mr. Searle, who was born and raised in Oak Bluffs, says his battle with cancer has given him a new perspective on life.
“It’s amazing how much a person’s life can change with just one phone call — ‘You’ve got cancer,’ ” he said. “My whole life is different now. You don’t realize how short life is until something like that happens.”
For many years, he wore a white shirt to Relay for Life to show his support for cancer survivors and victims, including his mother who died in 2001. Now he wears a purple shirt and walks in the survivors lap.
Ellie Beth, a two-time survivor of breast cancer, described the survivors lap atmosphere as cathartic. “It feels like all of those people watching us are putting their arms around us,” she said. “You’re being supported, lifted up and being hugged,”
Mrs. Beth, who has been cancer-free for 15 years, attends the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group to help guide those who are going through treatments.
“No one knows what it’s like to go through it as much as someone who’s gone through it themselves,” she said. She also works as an EMT on the Island, a fact that surprises some people. “It’s nice for people to see that you can survive and go on to do all kinds of interesting things,” she said.
For many survivors and caregivers, the Relay for Life is a way to give back to the organization that seeks to ease the lives of cancer patients.
“We lose people every day to it,” said Joan Hewson, logistics coordinator for the event and a cancer survivor. “It’s time for it to be over.”
Walking and registration begin today at 3 p.m. in the Relay for Life event at the regional high school track. The opening ceremony is at 6 p.m. and the survivors lap follows at 7 p.m. The luminaria ceremony begins at 9 p.m.