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Relay for Life a time of celebration, solemnity in South Portland

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Relay for Life a time of celebration, solemnity in South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — Hope and cure were more than buzzwords for those participating in the South Portland Relay for Life last weekend.

They were words to live by.

More than 1,000 people were registered for this year's relay, which raised more than $150,000 for cancer research by the American Cancer Society.

Event organizer Clayton Eames said participation and fundraising was slightly ahead of last year.

"We were at a little less than this amount after last year's event and ended up with a little over $170,000," Eames said. "So we have every hope that we'll reach our goal of $180,000 this year."

The Relay for Life, the American Cancer's Society's largest fundraiser, is an all-night event, running from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m.

This was the fourth year of the South Portland relay, which took place at the high school track. Since 2006, the South Portland event has raised more than $500,000 for cancer research and patient support programs.

Organizers addressed the question of why the event runs all night – rain or shine – on its website:

"We’ve heard that described as inconvenient, unnecessary, uncomfortable, difficult, and unappealing. Well, the same words can be used to describe cancer: inconvenient, unnecessary, uncomfortable, difficult, unappealing, ridiculous."

Slumber party

Participants embraced the event, billed by organizers as "Cumberland County's largest slumber party," by setting up tents that together made a makeshift village.

The evening started with hundreds of cancer survivors and caregivers taking the first, ceremonial lap around the track, while hundreds of other people crowded around to cheer them on.

Among the survivors was 60-year-old South Portland resident Barbara Nelson, whose breast cancer has been in remission for the last seven years.

After a lumpectomy, four months of chemotherapy and 33 consecutive days of radiation, Nelson has been taking cancer-killing pills for the last seven years. In about a month, however, she will stop taking those pills, a sign that her cancer is completely gone.

But it's not a moment that she and her sister are completely looking forward to.

"It's scary and exciting," Nelson said. "Every time I take those pills, I say, 'Go to work.'"

Betty Spettstoesser seemed more nervous than her sister.

"I felt secure because she was on those pills," she said.

But it's people like Nelson who offer inspiration to people like Al and Marie Guimont. Al Guimont, 63, was daignosed with a rare – and inoperable – form of cancer earlier this year and has been undergoing chemo since February.

Initially, Guimont's prognosis was not good: two months to live without treatment and two years to live, if a new treatment approved last year by the Food and Drug Administration works.

"I said, 'we can at least give it a shot,'" Guimont said of the new treatment.

Now, only three months later, a scan has revealed no new cancer cells; in fact, there may even be fewer. His doctor has given Guimont the option of taking some time away from treatment or eliminating the most toxic chemo drug.

"The doctor is really amazed," Marie Guimont said.

Long night's journey

Once the opening lap was completed Friday, scores of people began the long walk, accompanied by music piped through the sound system and a variety of theme laps, including crazy hats, lap poker, Snuggies and team pride.

While most people donned florescent caps or dressed as pirates, 17-year-olds Kristen Pollard and Ania Chandler, both of Portland, dressed up as a jar of Jiffy peanut butter and a box of Oreo Double Stuffed cookies for the superhero lap.

"Have you ever put peanut butter on an Oreo?" Pollard said when asked about the costumes. "It's delicious."

But at 9 p.m., all of the fun, which included Frisbee tossing and guitar playing on the infield, stopped. A solemn air fell upon the track, as more than 1,000 luminaria lining the inside of the field to honor and remember those with cancer were ceremoniously lit, beginning a quiet time of remembrance.

Many participants stopped walking and sat in half circles around the tea lights that were illuminating small white, sand-filled bags decorated with a friend or relative's name, photo and perhaps a message.

At 9:15 p.m., the track lights were shut off, revealing a nearly solid ring of light around the track and a message spelled out in the bleachers: "Hope" and "Cure."

For the first time ever, team captains approached the microphone and read aloud the names of those honored or remembered by the luminarias. In years past, the names would have been shown on the scoreboard.

As some sat, others continued the long, solemn walk in the darkness, being left with only their thoughts, with a gentle but cool breeze sweeping across the fields. For well over an hour, each name was read, sometimes with voices weak from emotion, but echoing nonetheless across the track and across a nearby oil tank farm.

Among those staring at their luminarias, more than a few sobbed openly, remembering exactly why they were there and the cancer research their fundraising will support. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net