As Michelle Sonderup co-chaired this year’s Elk River Relay For Life, her mother was never far from her thoughts.
Linda Proehl of Corcoran, Sonderup’s mother, had battled a rare form of cancer called carcinoid and died in 2007.
“She fought for about 14 years and passed away when she was 55. It was hard. We’re walking for her,” Sonderup said during the Relay For Life.
She and the other 200 or so participants joined forces at the annual Elk River Relay For Life in a united effort to fight cancer. The all-night event began at 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, at the Elk River High School football field and ended with a 7 a.m. breakfast courtesy of the Elk River Lions on Saturday, Aug. 11.
The event raised about $54,000 for the American Cancer Society, surpassing the goal of $50,000.
Co-chair with Sonderup was Missie Meyer, also inspired by personal experiences with cancer.
Meyer was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 and first became involved in the Relay For Life in 2001. She now has a Relay team through Maurices in Elk River, where she works as the first assistant manager.
This was her first year as the event’s co-chair.
Meyer said after her dad, David McPherson of Tennessee, died of cancer 2.5 years ago, she wanted to become more involved in the Relay beyond being a team captain. “I wanted to be a part of the planning and making a difference,” she said.
She likes the event because it gives people a chance to bond and talk to one another and it offers something for everyone.
Sonderup, who works at Home Depot in Elk River, was also in her first year as co-chair.
Celebrate, remember and fight back
Flags with the words “Celebrate,” “Remember” and “Fight Back” fluttered on the field as the event began with an opening ceremony at 7 p.m.
Meyer and Sonderup spoke, the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department presented the flags, a quartet sang the national anthem and the Rev. Paul Johansson of Central Lutheran Church offered a prayer.
The Relay For Life began with one event in Tacoma, Wash., in the 1980s. Now more than 5,000 Relays are held in the United States each year, and they have raised more than $4.5 billion.
Sonderup told the crowd that people often wonder why the Relay For Life runs through the night. Cancer never sleeps, she said, and the event symbolizes the cancer patient’s journey. When it begins, the sun is up and everything is normal. The sunset symbolizes the cancer diagnosis, the night suggests perseverance and the dawn represents hope for a future free of cancer.
One in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, she said. There are 11 million cancer survivors in the United States.
“By continuing to help Relay For Life grow and by raising additional funds for the American Cancer Society, we are the force that can continue to save lives,” she told the Relay participants.
She also read a speech from Lola Driessen of Elk River, honorary chairperson of the event who first became involved in the Relay in 1996. Driessen’s dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 10. He was given just six months to live, but survived for 25 years before dying at age 75.
“The moral of this story is with faith and hope, all things are possible,” according to Driessen.
The opening ceremony was capped off by honoring about three dozen cancer survivors. They introduced themselves and told how long they have survived cancer — with the times ranging from two months to 30 years.
One of the survivors was 7-year-old Karolyn Barrett. She was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2010 and was honorary chairperson of the 2011 Elk River Relay For Life.
She will complete her cancer treatment later this year on Nov. 22 which, fittingly, is Thanksgiving Day.
‘Helping real people with real needs’
A total of 25 teams participated in this year’s Relay For Life in Elk River. The team Grand Central Station Locomotion, chaired by Carole Eckstrom of Otsego, raised the most money at $5,802 with more still coming in.
Eckstrom said they have had a team since 2006. There were 16 people on the team this year including five cancer survivors, together totaling more than 36 years of survivorship.
Judy Peden, who was on the team for several years, died of cancer in May.
Eckstrom said she was motivated to continue her involvement in the Relay For Life by the loss of her friend and by all the other people she knows who have had cancer. Her mother died of breast cancer five years ago, her husband is an 11-year survivor of melanoma and her best friend died of lung cancer two years ago.
She likes the Relay For Life because it covers all types of cancer and the money raised not only helps fund cancer research but helps support things like the Hope Lodge, where cancer patients and their loved ones can stay free of charge while the patient is undergoing treatment away from home. There are 31 Hope Lodges in the United States, including ones in Minneapolis and Rochester.
“It’s not just the research and the education. It’s helping real people with their real needs,” Eckstrom said.