It’s a memorial act for some, and for others it’s done as a gesture to honor a relative or friend. Some just enjoy the camaraderie of the Relay for Life, of working together with a group of people to raise money and do something good in this world, which usually involves spending the better part of 24 hours together at a high school or college track.
The most profound stories, of course, come from those people for whom the relay is a symbol of willpower and determination, an act of resistance and survival against any number of dreadful diseases.
For everyone, the annual walks to support cancer research are acts of community. Cancer survivors, family members, neighbors and supporters together take on a challenge that would far outmatch any one of us individually. Working together, they collect hundreds of thousands of dollars — and their efforts make a real difference.
Donna Carbone is testament to all these things. She is a longtime leader of an active team in the Haverhill relay — the Pentucket Kiwanis Donna’s Team. It just participated in its 21st Relay for Life, held last month at Northern Essex Community College. As of June 12, the team had collected at least $108,816 in pledges and donations for the American Cancer Society. In a given year, Carbone and her husband, Peter, are typically good for gathering anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000.
In addition to being a longtime relay participant, Carbone is a 21-year survivor. The chemotherapy she receives is debilitating, but she also recognizes it as essential and far better than what cancer patients faced two decades ago. “What I do know is that research money has made the chemo treatments today much less harsh, so survivors 21 years from now will not have to deal with such life-changing conditions,” she recently told reporter Mike LaBella.
The occasion of their conversation was an interview about Carbone’s latest hobby — boxing. She’s picked up the gloves to help restore some of the upper-body strength lost due to cancer treatments, which have also caused osteoporosis and Parkinson’s disease.
Carbone is nothing if not a fighter. While she wasn’t able to attend all of this year’s Relay for Life, she took the honored lap with other cancer survivors. She also completed the final two laps of the relay, in a wheelchair, flanked by her family, friends and teammates.
Similar scenes play out about this time every year across the Merrimack Valley and North Shore — indeed across the country and the world. In April, there was the relay at the O’Keefe Center at Salem State University, which raised nearly $28,000. Earlier this month, the Tri-Town relay at Masconomet Regional High School netted nearly $152,000. The Haverhill relay, which included Carbone and her team, topped $127,000 in fundraising.
As much as all of these relays are a collective effort, they began with the determination of an individual.
Each event recalls Dr. Gordon “Gordy” Klatt’s feat 34 years ago. A marathoner and surgeon, he ran and walked some 83.6 miles at the Stadium Bowl at the University of Puget Sound over a 24-hour span. (It was the equivalent of more than three full marathons.)
Klatt was joined at various times by some 300 family members and friends who chipped in for the cause. And he inspired what is now, for many, a global rite of spring.
The Relay for Life has also been an essential pillar of support for the American Cancer Society, which reported in 2017 that more than 86% of its annual $860 million in fundraising had come from the public.
So, for the thousands in our region who carved out a full day this spring to take laps around a track, it surely was uplifting to be part of a widespread effort to help heal the world. On a much more personal level, it's heartening to walk alongside Carbone, and many others like her, who for all of us are models of strength and determination.