Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Getting Involved With F.C.’s Relay for Life

There are a number of annual events that contribute to the special “little city” feeling that so many of us appreciate about Falls Church-the Memorial Day parade, the Tinner Hill Blues Festival and the Fall Festival, to name just a few. But in recent years, another event has joined that list: the Relay For Life of Falls Church.

This year, on the night of Saturday June 4, several hundred local residents will gather on the George Mason High football field to remember those who have lost their lives to cancer, celebrate those who have survived a cancer diagnosis, and to raise money to help the American Cancer Society continue its fight against the disease. From very small beginnings five years ago, Relay For Life has grown to a wonderful intergenerational gathering attracting hundreds of local residents. Last year, more than 60 teams, many of them formed by middle- and high-school students, raised more than $105,000 to fight cancer.

Every one of us undoubtedly knows someone who has had to confront cancer. For me, it began with a grandfather who died of colon cancer when I was 10. Ten years later, a college friend had her life turned upside down when she was diagnosed with a very rare form of the disease. Over the years, the list of those who were lost grew to include friends, neighbors, mentors, my musical collaborator, and, a month after last year’s relay, my sister-in-law.

But amid the sad memories, there were also stories to celebrate, including the fact that my husband is still with me, 15 years after his own cancer diagnosis.
Joining in the Relay For Life has given me a very tangible way in which I can remember those I have lost-and “fight back” against this terrible disease.

If you’ve never attended a Relay For Life, much of it is fun and joyous, particularly as the more youthful participants take part in activities to help keep themselves awake as they circle the track throughout the night. But there are also two special highlights: the Survivors’ Lap and the Luminaria Ceremony.

At each relay, cancer survivors walk the first lap of the night, before being joined by their caregivers and family members. We encourage all cancer survivors in the area to let us know of your interest, to attend our opening reception and then to participate in this “Victory Lap.”

Joining in the Relay For Life has given me a very tangible way in which I can remember those I have lost—and ‘fight back’ against this terrible disease.

We’re also encouraging all of this year’s teams to recruit a cancer survivor as an “Honorary Co-Captain” to reinforce what Relay is all about.

Longtime Falls Church resident Ellen Salsbury is a cancer survivor who will be serving as one of two honorary co-chairs of this year’s event. This year marks Ellen’s 5th anniversary as a cancer survivor and five years of Relay participation. “There is a fellowship and a feeling of having shared experiences that bind survivors together,” she says. “Survivors walking arm in arm in the Victory Lap at the beginning of Relay gives us a feeling of strength and hope and caring that seems to surround us.”

Dr. Lois Berlin, superintendent of the Falls Church City Schools, will serve as the other honorary co-chair, in appreciation of the school system’s strong support for Relay.

But the most moving part of the Relay for me is the Luminaria Ceremony. As the sun goes down, hundreds of luminaria, honoring local cancer survivors and those we have lost, are lit around the track, as participants walk in silence in their memory. Up in the bleachers, the word “HOPE,” formed with candles, is transformed into the word “CURE.”

Last year’s Luminaria Ceremony was challenged when an early-evening downpour soaked many of the candles after they had been placed on the field. After the rain had stopped, I observed a young girl, patiently rearranging the paper bags, so that the name of the honoree could still be read.

I gasped as I saw the name on the bag she was adjusting: It was a luminaria I had purchased in memory of Marilyn Bright, my favorite high school English teacher, who had died of cancer 19 years before. “I really appreciate you doing that,” I told the girl, “because she was my teacher and a wonderful person.”

It was the kind of special moment that keeps bringing me back to Relay For Life. Teams are now forming and beginning their fund-raising. There are many ways you can get involved, either over the next few months or the night of the event. And even if you can’t participate yourself, consider purchasing a luminaria in memory of a family member or a friend.

Go to www.fallschurchrelay.org for more information. You’ll feel better when you do.




Sara Fitzgerald is a member of the steering committee of the Falls Church Relay For Life and the Cancel Cancer team.