For Denise Conway, the Survivor Walk at Bartow County's Relay For Life continues to be an uplifting experience.
Cancer free since 2013, the 58-year-old was diagnosed with stage IIB colon-rectal cancer in 2010.
"With the encouragement of my doctors and family, two months after my surgery and still so very sick, I went and walked at my first Relay For Life," Conway said. "I truly understand why we walk. My son Joseph helped me walk around the [track]. As the walk started, I was so surprised at all the people, the cheering and the encouragement. As we continued to walk, my family and people I didn’t even know were cheering me on, calling out my name and sending out so much love. I felt like I was floating around, not walking on my own two feet.
"I was crying so much for all the support and knew in that moment, with my son by my side, I would make it. People who are and have gone through cancer can make it with the help of friends, family and community. … Walking the lap with everyone makes you realize you have a bigger family than you thought. I feel like I belong to each and every one of the people there. You can feel the love."
Following a biopsy that detected an "aggressive" type of cancer, the Rome resident — who is a member of The Hope Center Relay For Life fundraising team — underwent a complete hysterectomy; a foot of her colon and appendix were removed; and she had a permanent colostomy.
"After I completed chemotherapy and radiation and was off of everything for eight weeks, two days after my 50th birthday — July 12 — on July 14, 2010, I went in for surgery," she said. "After surgery, my pathology report came back clean. The cancer had not spread, they got everything, the chemo and radiation had killed the cancer. Dr. [Madhurima Uppalapati] wanted me to take two more rounds of chemo just to make sure all of the cancer cells were out of my body. So October 2010 was my last treatment.
"Three years later and a lot of [tests] and blood work, they told me it was time to put this behind me. Cancer free. It still brings tears to my eyes, those are the best words that you can ever hear. As of today, I am still cancer free."
Ongoing from 7 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday, the Relay For Life event will support the American Cancer Society, which provides information, offers programs to patients, and funds research for cancer treatments and cures. Months of fundraising will culminate with the overnight benefit, in which team members will take turns walking around the track at the Bartow County College and Career Academy, 738 Grassdale Road in Cartersville.
"When reading Denise’s story you can’t help but realize it takes an entire community to care for one person who has been diagnosed with cancer," said Roxanne Miles, The Hope Center's oncology nurse navigator. "She received medical care from Harbin, Cartersville Medical Center, North Georgia Oncology Centers and The Hope Center. All of her medical providers worked in conjunction with one another despite the fact that they all work for different organizations. Denise received support from her family, friends and other community partners.
"She utilizes The Project Hope Painting workshops, sponsored by The Hope Center Foundation, which is art therapy at its best. She is also working with Teena’s Legacy to reupholster The Hope Chair. Denise is the type of survivor that reminds you healing not only is required for the body, but also the mind and soul. She is a caring, loving and thoughtful person and Relay For Life has been another community organization that has helped her along the way. I am hoping for a good turnout this year, because Relay provides a place for all people in the community to get together and feel the hope, encouragement and love for everyone that has been affected by cancer."
In 2017, the benefit featured 549 participants and 60 registered teams and generated $163,781 for the ACS. This year, organizers are trying to reach their goal of raising $165,000, according to www.RelayForLife.org/BartowGA.
"Those who are not signed up can still be a part of the event," said Marcus Young, community development manager for ACS' Southeast region. "We are asking all to come out and support the community at the event. … Relay For Life is the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Relay is staffed and coordinated by volunteers in thousands of communities and 27 countries. Volunteers give of their time and effort because they believe it's time to take action against cancer. Each team sets up a themed campsite at the event and continues their fundraising efforts by collecting donations for food, goods, games and activities. This money will count towards their overall team fundraising goal.
"Donations to Relay For Life help the American Cancer Society fund groundbreaking cancer research, critical patient care services, education and prevention initiatives and so much more. [Contributions] also assist in funding programs, such as patient services, support groups, social services, medical equipment, wigs and prostheses, transportation, lodging, financial programs and quitline."
On Friday, Relay For Life will kick off with a pair of offerings highlighting cancer survivors. From 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the football field, they will be treated to a complimentary dinner in which the individuals will be served by medical professionals from The Hope Center Radiation Oncology at Cartersville Medical Center and Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers.
While the survivors’ meals are free, they can bring one guest to dine with them for $10. Capped off by a birthday cake provided by Agan’s Bakery, the dinner will be catered by Alisha's Kitchen and consist of pulled pork or pulled smoked chicken, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, green salad, slider rolls, tea or bottled water (provided by Rite Aid).
"The Radiation Oncology Department as well as NGOC combine to make the Survivor Dinner a success," said Leigh Akley, The Hope Center's director of radiation oncology. "The dinner is to honor those who have survived cancer and also the ones who were there as caregivers on the journey. It is a way to show those who have traveled on this difficult road that we offer our support and congratulations.
"The best part of the event is talking with the participants. It is a wonderful thing to be able to listen to their stories and show them how much we care. Everyone involved works hard to make this a huge success. It takes a village and fortunately there are so many wonderful people who all pitch in to make sure everything runs smoothly."
Relay For Life organizers also are recruiting individuals to participate in the Survivor Walk at 7 p.m. As with the dinner, the initial lap is open to people who are cancer-free, and residents who recently have been diagnosed, are going through treatment or are in remission.
"All cancer survivors, and those currently fighting are encouraged to walk their lap," Young said. "The lap is to show support and solidarity. As they walk their lap, [they] are encouraged and praised by all those in attendance for their strength. This is one of the key moments and key [highlights] of the day.
"The symbolism of unity and strength it takes to not only walk the track physically, but to also mentally know you are supported and are never in this fight alone continues to be the hallmark of the event. We are all in support of one another."
For more information about participating in Bartow’s Relay For Life event, visit its website or Facebook page, or contact Young at 404-908-2264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.