In the island’s biggest Relay for Life yet, cancer fighters, survivors and their supporters came out to celebrate life, honor the lost and build financial and social support for the future.
The Charlotte Amalie High School parking lot was jammed tight with cars and the track was filled with white, green, maroon, yellow and black, the colors of this year’s relay to raise funds for cancer treatment. Tents lined the inside of the track, and a giant bouncy castle bobbed in the wind.
The overnight event was sponsored by the American Cancer Society. It started at 4 p.m. Saturday and ended at 8 a.m. Sunday.
However, Lorraine Baa, executive director of the American Cancer Society of the United States Virgin Islands, said the relay for life doesn’t end here.
“No finish line for us, until we find the cure,” she said.
Many of the supporters and cancer fighters share the same sentiment.
"I’m in this for life," said Glenn Francis, a retired chief firefighter and volunteer at this year’s event. Francis, who lost his mother to breast cancer, was with the Men in Black, a group of male volunteers that came out to lend their support to the cancer survivors and fighters.
“She had a rough time,” he said of his mother, “but she is the strongest woman I’ve ever known.”
He also knows what it means to fight cancer firsthand. He found out that he had prostate cancer in 2005. He was shocked when he got the news.
“I felt healthy. I went to the doctor regularly. I exercised,” he said.
Luckily for Francis, he found out early. Prostate cancer now has a very high rate of survival if you catch it early, he said. What makes the disease so insidious is the lack of warning.
“If you see a sign from prostate cancer, its usually too late,” he said.
Francis said a lot of people are walking around with the disease and don’t even know it because they don’t visit doctors, are uninsured, or are uncomfortable with invasive rectal checkups.
Despite the seriousness of the event’s cause, there was a lot of celebration in the air. The Relay started with a parade. Dancers, mocko jumbies, Rising Stars Steel Orchestra and the Virgin Islands National Guard marched as relay teams and survivors took to the track – relays in green shirts, survivors in yellow.
Teams played games together. Teams ICMC and First Bank raced against each other in the walk-the-plank competition. A member of ICMC screamed the group over the finish line as First Bank fell way behind.
Cancer survivors were ushered down a red carpet to the survivors’ tent and tended to by volunteers in dress attire. Waiters in tuxedos brought bread to the tables and showed the guests the menus. The chefs came out to greet everyone personally. Live music played over the meal. Gold plates rested on white table cloths. On the menu: organic garden greens, fresh fillet of salmon, chicken masala and Italian vegetable lasagna.
Later in the night more than 50 people took to the field for Zumba. Smiling and laughing, they kicked dust into the air as they followed the instructor. The steps grew increasingly difficult as the music intensified.
The Amazing Youth Drum Corps, led by Jose Camacho and Dipigny “Freeze” Gabriel, wore masks of blue and white as they played and danced for onlookers.
These were just a few of the activities planned for the overnight event.
The annual Luminary Ceremony started at 9 p.m. Men in Black lit torches and marched down the field, one stopping every few feet to take up his post. "Gonna Fly Now," the theme from the movie "Rocky," blasted over speakers as people cheered them on from the sidelines. When all the men were in place, the lights went out.
Along with the men’s torches, small candles in paper bags glowed from the track and bleachers. Written on them were the names of people that had died. The track cleared. It was a somber moment for everyone who had lost someone to the disease.
Then the survivors, wearing their yellow shirts, took the field. To the applause of friends and strangers they took a victory lap, then were joined by friends and supporters for another lap.
The Relay for Life is part of an international program that includes more than 5,000 communities in 20 cou8ntires. Overall, Relay for Life has raised more than $5 billion.
Saturday and Sunday’s event was the 13th on St. Thomas. The funds gathered over this event will help people who cannot afford treatment and need assistance in their fight with cancer.
“This is the way we make money to help our patients,” Baa said. “If we don’t do a relay, we can’t help our patients.”
Still more can always be done in the fight, said Yvette Finch, a volunteer at the event. She lost her mother to ovarian cancer in 2001. Finch said a cancer registry is much needed because it will bring even more funding to the Virgin Islands. She also said that more than one annual relay may allow for more money to be raised.
St. John’s relay had to be cancelled because of logistical problems, Baa said. Because of the cancellation, the funding goal for St. Thomas is $245,000.
This year for the first time, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico received a donation from their sponsor, Walgreens. Walgreens customers in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas donated $268,000 that will be spread across 38 units of the American Cancer Society in the two territories, helping toward the goal. But much of the money still has to be raised from the community.
Saturday night, Baa was optimistic about meeting the goal. For one, St. Croix it exceeded its goal by $10,000. And about 100 teams were registered for this year’s relay, more than in any past year, Baa said.
Baa said anyone can still donate by calling 1-340-775-5373.