Martha’s Vineyard will walk all night in fight against cancer


Tammy King has loved the Relay for Life event for years, but she never expected the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) eighth annual event to impact her own family as it does this year.

Ms. King’s husband, Hans, is undergoing tests on a tumor recently discovered in his stomach. “He went in to check on kidney stones and doctors saw a large tumor in his abdomen,” she said. “We’re at the finding-out stage now.”

But she’ll be at the high school track at 3 pm on Friday, June 3, when an estimated 400 purple-clad walkers, grouped in teams, will step out on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School track to begin a 21-hour event that concludes at 11 am on Saturday. More than 60 cancer survivors will make the first lap around the track — the ceremonial Survivors’ Lap.

“My goal is to raise $100,000,” Ms. King, chairman of the event, said late last week. “That’s my goal. I understand that fundraising is struggling all over and ACS would be happy with $86,000, but we raised $93,000 last year.

“This is my soul food. We moved here (from California) ten years ago to find a sense of community, and I was immediately drawn to the Relay. I got involved because it was a community event. I was taken by the indescribable energy of these 21 hours.”

The Relay functions as a fundraiser to bolster the fight against cancer, but its mission is broader in personal terms. It is designed to strengthen a community network that nurtures grateful cancer survivors and those who’ve lost loved ones to the disease.

Relay events are tied to three themes: celebrate, remember, and fight back. The opening Survivors’ Lap is the celebratory element; remembrance is highlighted by luminarias (candles placed in open white sand-filled paper bags inscribed with the names of loved ones claimed by cancer) that are placed along the inside edge of the track; and a Saturday ceremony pledges to fight cancer.

Relay team members pledge and gather donations for their participation. Most teams pitch tents where members can nap or grab a snack during the night. Some of them are quite elaborate. The local Rotary Club will be operating a Burger Barn on Friday and offer a Saturday morning pancake breakfast. Relay sponsors include ACS, Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, Edgartown National Bank, Sharkey’s restaurants, The Rotary Club, and The Vineyard Gazette.

Both the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group and Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard participate in the relay. “Our number one team so far this year is composed of Cancer Support Group and Hospice members,” Ms. King said.

While the Cancer Support Group and Hospice are critically important and their fundraising dollars stay here, ACS uses the money it raises to bolster cancer research, to provide information for cancer patients and caregivers, and to support ACS efforts to change laws and challenge insurance companies that try to limit coverage for cancer treatment. Local contributions go to ACS, but they are returned in various ways to Island residents, Ms. King said.

ACS provides assistance to one in every five cancer patients in New England. Islanders can receive medical help, such as prosthetics, and can qualify for extremely affordable lodging (the Hope Lodge program) around the country near medical facilities. Residents can also get ferry tickets purchased by ACS for medical and patient visits. ACS also sponsors Angel Flights and Road to Recovery rides to Boston hospitals.

But more needs to be done. “Last year I learned that some of the ferry tickets weren’t used,” Ms. King said. “We have to do a better job at communicating the services available to the Island.”

Fundraising around life and death issues like cancer has a different intensity than, say, raising money for civic projects. This effort is different, and talking with participants turns up stories about courage and commitment and a sense of joy.

For example, Ms. King is awed by the efforts of her pal, Diana Bardwell, 49, of West Tisbury, who is literally fighting for her life with an extremely rare form of cancer. Nevertheless Ms. Bardwell has focused on building three teams (15 members each) to participate in the relay — a record number.

“The only reason we have three teams is the American Cancer Society caps off teams at 15,” Ms. Bardwell said. “Our goal was to create one team, and we view ourselves as one team despite what it looks like on paper.

“My great friend and our team leader, Melissa Dolby, came to me one night and said, ‘I want to create a team for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life and I want it to be called Team Diana. Right now, I am a team of one but I think that will change.’

“And as Islanders always do when someone is in trouble, people called us and said, as they always do, ‘What can I do to help? What do you need?’ And so we started signing people up.

“Our Team Theme is ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ which is directly inspired by what our Island community does when a member of the community is in trouble. The Relay is not only about our team but all the teams that have worked tirelessly to make this event a huge success. It is a very moving, poignant yet fun-filled event so everyone should come to check it out. This event is an Island get-together. We are going to raise lots of money and have a blast while doing it. I hope to see everyone there!”

Like Ms. Bardwell, Ms. King is struck by the Island ethic of support. “l heard a cancer support group speaker say he never asked to join this ‘club,’ but he said that once he did, he had a different life perspective,” she said. “Working with the cancer community gives us a new bond and connection with people.”

Information about participation is available at 2011 Relay for Life of Martha’s Vineyard. The website constantly updates teams and contributions.