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Cancer and celebration don’t often go hand in hand, but each year, a group of Napans stands up to cancer during a 24-hour demonstration to create awareness for cancer research while celebrating those who have conquered the disease.

Relay For Life is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society (ACS). During Relay, participants form teams and vow to keep at least one team member on the Relay course at all times in an effort to show that if cancer never rests, the fight for a cure will be equally tireless. Participants walk the course into the night and greet the dawn in hopes that the Relay movement will inspire others to campaign for cancer research and advocate for a cure.

“At Relay, we celebrate survivors, remember those who have lost their battle with cancer and fight back against cancer to conquer this disease once and for all,” said Heather DeSplinter, Napa Relay For Life planning committee member and team captain. “Relay For Life is unique in that Relay does not focus on one specific type of cancer but instead celebrates survivors of every form of cancer and reaches out to educate our community on all types of cancer.”

Napa joined the Relay For Life movement – now in its 30th year nationally – in 1997. In 14 years, Napa’s Relay participants have raised $8.7 million for the American Cancer Society, which supports local cancer programs in addition to funding research.

Relay For Life is a community event. Even those who haven’t signed up to fundraise can have fun at Relay, DeSplinter said. Teams host on-site fundraisers, games and other family-friendly activities. Plus, there is live music and refreshments.

But Relay isn’t all fun and games. There are times to get serious and reflect on the brutal nature of cancer and what it does to the afflicted and their families, but Relay, at its core, is meant to inspire, according to DeSplinter.

“Relay has its somber moments, but Relay is meant to be a celebration,” DeSplinter said. “We start each year with a survivor’s lap where those who are battling cancer or have beat cancer take the first lap. They wear special purple shirts, and it reminds you how important this event is. You see that sea of purple and you see how many lives are touched by cancer, right here in your hometown, and it makes you want to fight.”

This year’s survivor lap will be led by a special group of survivors – the Voices of Hope – cancer survivors who are 18 and younger. DeSplinter’s brother Chip was diagnosed with cancer at 2 and died before he turned 5, so creating a moment for young cancer survivors to take the spotlight holds special meaning.

“Celebrating survivors in important, but this year I asked the planning committee if we could do something a little different,” she said. “These kids have been through the worst, but they are fighters, and they are still here. They are our heroes. I know that anyone who hears their stories will walk away inspired to help beat this terrible disease.”

During the opening ceremony for this year’s Relay, organizers will take a moment to share the stories of Napa’s youngest cancer survivors. Here are some of their stories:

Taking life as it comes

Jared McDaniel, 5, has a toothy grin and an infectious laugh. He’s also a cancer survivor who has completed intensive chemotherapy, two weeks of cranial radiation and more than 30 spinal taps.

“We knew something was wrong, but you never think it’s cancer,” said Jared’s father, Cole. “But you get that call, and it’s like everything around you falls away. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. My wife and I didn’t know what that was, but we knew we were going to do everything in our power to get our son healthy.”

Jared was 2 when he was diagnosed with the cancer that attacks white blood cells in bone marrow, but by the time the cancer was found, the cancer cells had contaminated his spinal fluid. As part of his recovery, Jared has a tube in his chest known as a Broviac, which is used to deliver treatments. He’s had it for as long as he can remember.

“Jared was drawing a picture, and it was of him in his mom’s belly,” Cole said. “He drew this line on his chest and at first I thought it was the umbilical chord, but when I asked him, he told me it was his Broviac port, and that’s when I realized, he has no memory of a time when he wasn’t sick. He’s just a little boy, but he’s been through so much.”

Jared completed his final chemo treatment in June and was scheduled to have his Broviac removed on July 21.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t worry about Jared, but we have to still go on with life and still create happy memories,” said Candace, Jared’s mother. “There are lot of thing we wish for Jared to do still but because of his immune system he can’t. We just take it day by day and try to keep all the germs away.”

The most important thing, Candace said, is to make sure Jared is loved and knows that he’s loved. “Even though we may have hard days or sad days, we always find time to say I love you, tell a joke or be goofy and give each other a hug.”

The “good” kind of cancer

Itzel Mendez was 3 when she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and 6 when she relapsed.

“It’s hard to remember back to the beginning when this all started,” said Jesus Mendez, Itzel’s father. “Back in 2009, before Itzel was diagnosed, the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. First they thought she had the flu, then they said it was mono. They even told us it was H1N1 at one point. But no matter what they tried, she wasn’t getting any better. That’s when the doctor ordered a blood test. That’s when everything changed.”

Itzel was taken to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford for treatment.

“The doctors told us that the cancer she had was the ‘good’ cancer for kids to get. They told us there was a 90-percent survival rate. I’m sure that was meant to be comforting, but cancer is scary no matter how you look at it.”

Itzel underwent months of treatments, and was in remission for more than a year when her cancer returned. This time doctors said Itzel would need a stem cell transplant to rebuild her immune system. Her odds of survival were cut to 50 percent.

“I was angry, frustrated, and tired,” Jesus said. “Itzel is a fighter. She’s been that way since the day she was born, but to have cancer twice when you are that young, it wasn’t fair.”

Even though no one in the family was a stem cell match for Itzel, a donor was eventually found. Today, she is a happy and healthy 9-year-old.

The Mendez family remains grateful for the support of the American Cancer Society, which helped the family financially as both Jesus and his wife, Jacqueline, struggled to make ends meet.

“The American Cancer Society helped our family when Itzel was sick,” Jacqueline said. “They provided monetary assistance that helped pay for the transportation costs during her treatments and helped pay rent and for food while we took time off work to care for her.”

A test of strength

Milan Alas’ favorite subject in school is science, but she wants to be a graphic designer. Her dream job is to co-host a talk show with Ellen DeGeneres, but the graphic designer idea seems like a good back up plan. Milan is 13, and she is a cancer survivor.

“I was recently told I don’t have any cancer markers,” she said. “And I managed to finish the school year with a 4.0. That’s a big deal. Make sure to put that in your article.”

Milan was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at 11. She had a bone marrow transplant when she was 12. Despite her diagnosis, Milan managed to keep a positive outlook on life.

“Cancer took my grandmother, but I won’t let it take me. There was a reason for this to happen. That reason was to test my strength,” Milan said. “During the time I sat in the hospital, I had a few ups and down, but I learned new things about myself. Instead of looking at something like this in a negative way, we should find a positive. Nothing controls your happiness.”

Stacey Alas, Milan’s mother, said she is grateful for her daughter’s ability to look on the bright side. She said events like Relay For Life help remind the Alas family they are not alone in the fight against cancer.

“My mother died of cancer, so Relay has been a big part of our lives, but it took on a new meaning when Milan was diagnosed,” Stacey said. “The Relay community offers support in so many ways, and it is such a comfort to know that there are people out there who aren’t touched by cancer directly but are just as inspired to help you fight for a cure.”

Today, Milan is cancer-free and on the mend. She recently traveled with her family to Los Angeles where she posed in front of DeGeneres star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Hope in Napa

Voices of Hope is unique to Napa Relay For Life, and Heather DeSplinter hopes it will become a permanent feature of Napa’s event as well as Relays throughout the region.

For young cancer survivors of Napa Valley, there is still time to register as a survivor and submit your story to be shared as one of the Voices of Hope during the opening ceremony.

To learn more about Voices of Hope, email DeSplinter at RelayForChip@yahoo.com.

Since its inception in 1985, Relay For Life events around the world have raised more than $5 billion for cancer research and local cancer support programs.

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Online Editor/Calendar Editor

Samie Hartley is the Napa Valley Register online editor. Her column Simple & Sassy runs on alternating Sundays.

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