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Area Relay participants, event mark 20 years of battling disease

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As the morning sun rose over a dozen tents in a makeshift campground at Columbus East High School, the images came into focus.

People walked alone or in small groups around a makeshift track, telling jokes and stories or just talking to pass the time.

It didn’t matter that they were moved from the high school track to the student parking lot because of construction.

They were there for a purpose.

The American Cancer Society’s 24-hour community walking event connects teams and sponsors to raise funds.

Relay For Life of Columbus has been operating for 20 years, with the local event raising more than $1 million in that time.

Eric Pittman of Columbus, the American Cancer Society’s senior manager for Relay For Life in the Southern Indiana region, said the level of support in his local community is a source of pride.

The 199 local individuals representing 32 Relay For Life teams were determined this weekend to help defeat cancer, a disease that had taken something — or someone — from each of them.

By 8 a.m. Saturday, local teams had been at it for 14 hours, taking turns walking the track, but always making sure someone from each team was on the circuit at all times.

For some, the common bond of cancer brought them together. But for many in a close-knit Columbus community, it just brought them a little closer.

Daughter wins her fight

Sandy Weber, a member of the Dre’s Bees team, was there in support of her daughter.

Adrianna Weber was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a rare cancer of the kidney that mostly affects children, at age 7.

The team moniker refers to a nickname Sandy Weber had for her daughter — Dre Dre Bumblebee.

“By the time they discovered the tumor, it had metastasized and moved into her lungs and liver,” Sandy Weber said. “As a mom, it was really rough.”

But Weber was determined to help her daughter get through it — and that, she did.

On July 17, it will be five years since Adrianna was diagnosed as cancer free.

Weber attended her first Relay at the invitation of friends seven years ago when her father-in law died from cancer. Adrianna’s tumor was discovered the next year, and Weber has been an annual participant ever since.

Adrianna, now 12, might have surrendered a kidney to cancer, but not her spirit.

She led the Pledge of Allegiance during Friday night’s opening ceremonies.

This past school year, she participated on the eighth-grade cheerleading squad at Northside Middle School.

She is, as Weber put it, “just a normal teenage girl with one kidney.”

‘One big family’

Jack Stephenson, a friend who invited Weber to her first event, has been attending Relay for Life since 2005.

He walked that year with his lifelong friend, Neil Comstock, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 18 and battled cancer for 17 years before dying from melanoma in 2006.

“The thing about cancer is it touches everybody,” said Stephenson, whose team is called Neil’s Courage.

“Neil and I grew up together in Elizabethtown, and it was really tough to see what it did to him.”

Stephenson has known Weber for 25 years, but he said their families have grown closer through Relay.

“Her daughters are my daughters and my daughters are her daughters,” Stephenson said. “We really are all like one big family.”

Amanda Devine got involved with Relay last year at Harrison College because the team needed some help with registration.

She has lost a grandfather and great-grandmother to cancer. Cancer touched Devine’s life again this year.

One of her former classmates, Autumn Egan, who was also at the Relay, was diagnosed in January with Stage IV cervical cancer, which had spread to her hip and lung.

The stages identify the extent of cancer — with Stage IV being the most severe.

Egan, 43, knew the dangers of late-stage cancer because her children’s father died from the disease. Her boyfriend is also a cancer survivor.

She said doctors have described her response to treatment nothing short of miraculous.

“They thought it was too far gone at that point, so all they really offered me was chemotherapy,” Egan said.

“They gave me a less that two-year life expectancy. However, I had a scan April 1 and everything had stopped growing or was shrinking,” she said. “The doctor said cervical cancer that advanced does not react to treatment that way, but mine did and I’m still here.”

Stirring opening ceremony

The 24-hour Relay event kicked off at 6 p.m. Friday with a series of speeches and presentations, along with stirring rendition of the national anthem by breast cancer survivor Janie Gordon.

At one point, the Columbus North High School choral director’s microphone cut out, which prompted the crowd to start singing louder, stirring emotions in the vocalist.

“When you are singing the national anthem, you are really just leading a group of people who should be singing. So when they joined in, it was even better,” Gordon said.

A highlight of the 24-hour Relay for Life was the luminaria ceremony, which began at 10 p.m. Friday.

More than 200 paper bags with a hand-written message or decoration, and a lighted candle in each, lined the track and illuminated the path.

Team members took a lap to remember a friend or family member who has battled or was lost to cancer, as photos of their loved ones were displayed on a big screen.

“It’s so exciting to see a community come together after 20 years and continue the fight,” Pittman said.” Communities like Columbus keep the American Cancer Society going and literally save lives.”

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