Survivors inspire at Northern Berkshire Relay for Life fundraiser


NORTH ADAMS — One word may be worth thousands of pictures: survivor.

More than 100 cancer survivors walked a quarter-mile lap at Noel Field on Friday to kick off the Northern Berkshire Relay for Life cancer research fundraiser.

Onlookers shared cheers, tears, and smiles as friends and family members circled a track beneath a bright spring sun. Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" provided a soundtrack for the survivor lap. A North Adams Police Department Color Guard led the march. Mayor Richard Alcombright delivered opening remarks.

"I like being a survivor," said 6-year-old city resident Maurice Alexander, who said he was excited to walk with his parents.

Maurice held up a white sign that read "6 years, 7 months," which is the length of time since his brain cancer diagnosis.

"Being part of the survivor lap, it's definitely our proud moment," said Brittany Alexander, Maurice's mother.

Donations totaled $61,833 as of 9:30 a.m. Saturday, but the total would likely be higher by the time all donations were tallied, according to event co-Chairwoman Sharon DeMyer-Nemser, of Williamstown. This year's goal was $100,000. Revenues raised during relays benefit the American Cancer Society research programs.

Cheshire resident Mackenzie Biros was 5 years old when she was diagnosed with a Wilms' tumor. She will celebrate her sixth birthday next month and walked her first survivor lap during the event kickoff.

"Being able to walk this lap is awesome," said Michael Biros, Mackenzie's father. "It was a rough year."

Cancer changed her daughter's view of the world, said Molly Biros, Mackenzie's mother.

"When she plays with her dolls she'll say 'OK, we're going to chemo now,' " Biros said. "She didn't say that before chemo. She'll be playing with her stuffed animals and I will hear her tell them that they are strong, that they are fighters like she is."

Tears were immediate when she was asked about the day she and her husband were told Mackenzie's diagnosis.

"It felt like the world was ending," she said. "And even though she is in remission, we worry."

This was the 11th year of the Northern Berkshire relay. DeMyer-Nemser and her co-chairwoman, Patricia Decker, of Readsboro, Vt., said that they have felt cancer's grip.

DeMyer-Nemser said that she is a five-year bladder cancer survivor and Decker said that she was a caregiver to her mother- and father-in-law, who each had cancer, and her husband, who is 11 years cancer-free.

The local relay concluded at noon Saturday, but worldwide, relay fundraising continues for 2016 until Aug. 31. New fundraising efforts for the next year begin Sept. 1, DeMyer-Nemser said.

"Cancer doesn't rest and neither do we," she said.

City resident Tammy Moon, Patricia Mancuso of Florida and Brenda Vallone of Clarksburg waited for the survivor lap to begin. The three women bowl as part of the Women's Commercial Bowling League at the city-based Mount Greylock Bowl.

Moon and Mancuso said that they are both currently cancer-free. Vallone said that she was told she had cancer in January and is nearly finished with radiation treatments.

"My last treatment is Monday," she said.

"This event means strength and hope and family," said Moon.

"There is inspiration here," Mancuso said. "I am at 15 years cancer-free, Tammy has 11 years and Brenda is finishing radiation treatment at five months. That kind of says it all."

Cancer is a learning experience with some sad lessons, said Yvette Losaw, a registered nurse at the Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. Her 8-year-old nephew is battling cancer, she said. A recent magnetic resonance imaging scan revealed no evidence of the disease, she said.

"There are things you learn," she said. "My nephew finished six weeks of radiation but he is not a candidate for chemotherapy. He has permanent hair loss where they did the treatments. People normally wouldn't even research this. You wouldn't know any of this until it hits your family."

There were about 14.5 million cancer survivors in the United States during 2014 and that number could jump to about 19 million by 2024, according to a collaborative report from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. Research leads to life-prolonging or life-saving treatments.

The relay was founded by Gordy Klatt, a physician who spent 24 hours walking and running around a Tacoma, Wa., track in May 1985. About 340 people joined the endeavor in 1986 and Relay for Life has become a global fundraiser with about $5 billion generated over the years, according to the Relay for Life website.

Despite the progress, millions of people lose cancer battles. On Friday evening, a Luminaria ceremony honoring those who died from cancer was led by Berkshire Highlanders bagpipe musician David Lagerbom. He circled the softly lit track and played "Amazing Grace," "Mist Covered Mountains, "Going Home" and "Dark Island."

"My mother is a cancer survivor," he said. "When (event organizers) asked me to do this, there was no question that I would. These are people who appreciate this."

Some folks encouraged relay donations through creative means. Charles H. McCann Technical School computer assisted design instructor Joshua Meczywor told high school students that if they raised $1,000, he would dye his beard purple.

As of 8 p.m. Friday, the students had raised $1,400 and Meczywor was sporting violet-hued whiskers.

"When I reached out to the kids, they really wanted to have a (relay) team," he said. "We had 70 kids signed up in two weeks and I think we ended up with about 85 kids. They are walking laps."

Meghan DeLuca, 20, spoke about being a caregiver during the event about the loss of loved ones to cancer. Her mother, Sandie Richardson, died in 2015 at 45.

DeLuca described the months following the February 2014 diagnosis. Initially it appeared that Richardson had beaten the cancer but in late fall 2014, the family learned that cancer had returned and was aggressive, DeLuca said.

Her mother was hospitalized and put into a medically induced coma temporarily, she said.

"And I spent hours in BMC trying to figure out how to tell the woman who had given me life that she would lose hers."

DeLuca described how valiantly her mother fought against the cancer even when she knew the disease would claim her. She noted her mother's poise, spirit and determination.

"No matter what hardships you face, be fierce," DeLuca told those gathered under a tent. "Always fight and even if it is in memory, you will survive."

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