Relay For Life Participants Endure Weather to Fight Cancer

Cancer survivors take the first lap Saturday during Relay for Life Menifee at Paloma Valley High...

Cancer survivors take the first lap Saturday during Relay for Life Menifee at Paloma Valley High School.
Hundreds turned out for Saturday's Relay For Life Menifee at Paloma Valley High School, despite the heat and questionable air quality from recent fires nearby.

Cancer survivors, their caregivers and supporters battle a disease that affects 1.2 million new patients a year. They weren't going to let the weather stop them from fundraising and educating the public. They had bigger concerns.

For Sal Aguirre, his biggest concern was finding a match for a bone marrow transplant. In May 2012 he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia after his wife Googled what he thought were flu symptoms. By the time he got to the clinic and went through several tests, the doctors admitted him to a hospital immediately. His white blood cell count was extremely below the normal range, at a meek 108, when it's supposed to be somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000.

"They told me I should've dropped dead a long time ago," said Aguirre, who's in law enforcement. "I was crushed."

Altogether, he spent about seventh months in the hospital, weak and bedridden while receiving treatments. As a military man, Aguirre struggled to adjust.

"It was a really big blow to be told, 'You can't do that, you're too weak,'" he said. "The nurses kept telling me, 'You don't get it, you have nothing to fight off an infection.' If someone sick came in and coughed on me, I could've died."

His wife, Kristi, said Sal still goes to work and does everything normally despite being in urgent need of a transplant.

"He has a 10 percent survival rate for the next three years," she said. "So we're looking at one year."

The Aguirres have been long-time supporters of Relay For Life, but didn't start a team until Sal was diagnosed. Their family and friends now make up the "Strikeout Cancer" team, or "Team Sal," and use the event to educate people about the different types of leukemia and how easy it is to become a bone marrow donor.

They've been struggling to find a match, but are still hopeful.

"It's frustrating because we can't find someone, but Relay For Life helped because we met other survivors who went through the same thing," said Kristi. "If we don't find anyone, we hope we can help someone else."

Sal explained it's now easier than ever to donate, and urges willing donors to visit www.bethematch.org.

Cancer is a heavy subject, and its weight was most felt during the Luminaria ceremony, when survivors and those who lost their battle with cancer were honored. The lights went out at 9 p.m., and the words "HOPE" and "CURE" were lit up on the bleachers. A couple of caregivers shared their stories, and photos of the deceased and surviving were shown. Glowing paper bags dedicated to cancer victims and survivors lined the track as everyone walked a silent lap following a bagpiper. Friends and families cried and embraced one another.

The circus theme at this year's relay helped lighten the mood. Every team had a carnival game at its table to help raise money, and there was live entertainment and raffles. In between events, kids took to the field to play football, fly kites, and more.

"We tried to create a very family friendly way to talk about cancer," said event chair Jennafer Griswold (left). "It's a very scary subject. This way, kids become more comfortable with it."

Cancer survivor Madison Keith (below right), age 12, was diagnosed when she was 10. Like many children, she didn't understand when the doctor told her that the tumor behind her rib wasn't benign. In an emotional speech she gave during the relay's opening ceremony, she talked about the day she and her family will never forget.

"I turned to my father and asked, 'Dad, do I have cancer?' and he looked at me with tears in his eyes and nodded, 'Yes,'" she said.

After seven rounds of chemotherapy and 31 rounds of radiation, Madison beat cancer in June of last year.

She and other survivors walked the first lap of the relay, and were next joined by their caregivers, and then everyone else. Team members continued to take turns walking the track for the remaining 23 hours, fighting sleep or taking naps at night in their tents set up around the field.

Griswold and other committee members monitored the air throughout the day, and said they were prepared to modify and alter the relay if it became a problem. Although it never came to that, the air and the heat might've played a factor in this year's decrease in attendance.

According to volunteer Mike Castillejos, who's been involved with Relay For Life for seven years, there were less people than usual. There wasn't an increase of people arriving as the day cooled down, and two teams failed to show up.

"It's slower than usual," he said. "We've had a few no-shows, but it could be for a number of reasons."

One team that was concerned about the air was Once Upon A Cure (below left) from Heritage High School. Team leader Teresa Grossi has been taking students to Relay For Life Menifee for the past eight years. Her students in the Interact/Rotary club spend an entire year fundraising for the relay, and usually make up to $11,000.

Despite all of their hard work, she said this was the first time she and her team would not spend the night.

Heritage High senior Leo Oropeza said he was disappointed because he loves the relay's atmosphere at night.

"The weather is out of our hands, so we'll have to make the best of the time we do have here," he said.

Even though air quality advisories were issued the day before, Griswold said over 500 people registered for the relay, and even more showed up.

Relay For Life Menifee officials hope to raise $65,000 this year. In August, their year will restart and people will be able to donate more at www.relayforlife.org. 

Mayor Scott Mann introduces Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley during the opening ceremony at Relay For Life Menifee. Ashley's wife is a breast cancer survivor. "Enjoy today," he said. "You'll come out emotionally and physically stronger."

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