Stagecoach resident Todd Pedersen works with his daughters, Abi, 2, and Kaela, 5, to place luminarias around the Steamboat Springs High School track Friday during Relay For Life. The event this weekend raised $122,274 for cancer research.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Stagecoach resident Todd Pedersen works with his daughters, Abi, 2, and Kaela, 5, to place luminarias around the Steamboat Springs High School track Friday during Relay For Life. The event this weekend raised $122,274 for cancer research.

Stories of survival sow hope at Steamboat Relay For Life

Event raises $122,274 for research for cancer

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2010 Relay for Life

Cancer survivors share their stories during this weekend's Relay for Life in Steamboat Springs.

Cancer survivors share their stories during this weekend's Relay for Life in Steamboat Springs.

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Steamboat Springs resident Gwen Sanwick was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. She took a year off from work as a pilot for FedEx and returned to the air last summer. She was promoted to captain in fall 2009.

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Breast cancer survivor Doris Ross, of Florida, waves a flag Friday during the Relay For Life survivor lap. This is the second year she has attended the event.

By the numbers

2010 Relay For Life

■ $122,274 — Total amount raised

■ 380 — Total number of participants

■ $1,499 — Amount raised by Jordyn Hetrick, top youth fundraiser

■ 221 — The number of people who raised more than $100

■ $12,237 — Amount raised by Ciar Colgan, top fundraiser

■ 1,668 — The number of laps the Professional Firefighters team took around the track between 7 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday

Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version to correct the spelling of Ciar Colgan's name.

One year meant a world of difference for Steamboat Springs resident Jim McGee.

At last year’s Relay For Life, he wore a white shirt as he circled the Steamboat Springs High School track to raise money and awareness for the American Cancer Society.

He never imagined wearing the purple shirt with “Survivor” emblazoned on the back, or walking that first lap in celebration of another year of beating the disease.

A doctor’s appointment in March changed that. Now, McGee travels to Edwards five days a week for radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

On Friday, he sat next to friend and breast cancer survivor Vonnie Schell at the cancer survivor’s reception for the 2010 Relay For Life.

“It’s weird,” he said. “I’ve got this disease I can’t feel, and I’m getting this treatment that I can’t feel. It’s all very mystical.

“It’s disturbing to discover I’m not really Superman.”

Like McGee, Schell never thought she’d be clad in purple for the annual fundraiser.

“It’s kind of surreal, really,” she said. “I never thought I’d be on that side of it. But it’s a good feeling because there’s such a good camaraderie of cancer survivors.”

Schell and McGee weren’t the only ones showing signs of invincibility against an incurable disease.

More than 100 cancer survivors were honored and celebrated at the fifth annual Relay For Life on Friday night at the Steamboat Springs High School track.

The event, during which 380 participants walked around the track for 14 hours, raised $122,274 for the American Cancer Society for cancer research.

The total was 60 percent of the $200,000 goal.

Still, event co-chairwoman Susan McIntosh said the night was a success.

“I think it went fantastic,” she said. “I think the money raised was spectacular, really.”

Team development coordinator Lisa Powell, who has lost several close family members and a dog to cancer, said there was a palpable energy in the air Friday night.

“We really have tried to make it more of a celebration,” she said. “The luminaria ceremony is obviously very reflective, but it’s really a celebration of life. This year, there’s a lot more energy than past years.”

She said her experiences with cancer taught her many lessons — some she didn’t even want to learn — about life and death.

But watching the camaraderie among the survivors at each Relay For Life gives her hope.

“It’s a way for me to feel like I’m doing something in their memory,” she said about her involvement with the event. “And hopefully, we can find a cure.”

The power of youth

After the sun sank below the horizon Friday evening and the summer air began to cool, event officials lit candles in hundreds of white paper bags positioned around the track.

Each luminaria was dedicated to someone who was lost to or still is fighting some form of cancer.

The white bags were decorated with images and messages like, “We miss you, Grandpa,” “In honor of my Dad,” and “He liked to look at the sun.”

As a chain of hundreds of participants grasped hands around the track, a soft voice read the names on each luminaria.

It was this ceremony last year that touched Carly Fox, 16, and motivated her and her friends, called Team Fresh Start, to write about 30 individualized letters to family and friends to raise money for the 2010 Relay.

The team ended up raising $13,474, more than any other team.

“For me, when we got all those letters back, I realized that every single person is affected by (cancer) in some way,” Fox said. “Like we wrote in our letters, ‘Everyone can relate to the pain of losing someone, or the sheer joy of beating it.’”

Her friend and teammate, Ciar Colgan, raised $12,237 of the team’s total from responses to her letters.

Colgan, who watched her mother battle breast cancer, said watching the luminaria ceremony only solidified her strong belief in her and her team’s efforts.

“The goal of our whole team was to raise money, do something good and make a difference,” she said. “We were so excited people wanted to help out.

“It reminds you to be thankful for every day you have.”

A somber reminder

Survivor and Steamboat Springs resident Gwen Sanwick was another Relay participant who had taken that lesson to heart.

In the year she underwent treatment for breast cancer, Sanwick made the most of her days away from work as a FedEx pilot.

She bicycled nearly every day and spent time with her husband, slowing down to take care of herself, for once.

On one trip to Edwards for radiation treatment, she biked the 80 miles back to Steamboat Springs.

“It makes me not take my health for granted,” she said about her battle with cancer. “I still know it comes back.”

In summer 2009, she was cleared to fly again and was promoted to captain in just a few months.

But several emotions resurfaced as she walked the track Friday night.

“The survivors lap gets to me,” she said.

But she, too, feels the camaraderie among the survivors, forging bonds with people she didn’t even know had cancer.

“It’s a great way to bring the community together and remind all of us of the battles people are fighting every day,” she said.

Just as the sun was setting on the high school track, Sanwick’s neighbor, Luther Berntson, a prostate cancer survivor, walked up to her and slipped his arm around her.

“She’s amazing,” he said, giving her a squeeze. “What this shows is that cancer sucks, but it doesn’t have to get you down.”

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