Cancer survivors, guests and leaders of Relay for Life of Loudon County gathered Thursday evening to celebrate a feat: beating cancer.
About 70 survivors were treated to a home-cooked spaghetti dinner at Highland Park Baptist Church in Lenoir City. The Loudon County Survivor Appreciation Dinner was organized by local FSGBank employees.
Kim Ebeling, local Relay for Life chairwoman, said while the night of Relay raises awareness and funds for cancer research, she believes celebrating survivors through an appreciation dinner is just as important. Ebeling noted her own personal battles with cancer.
"It's for the survivors so that they know we are still here for them. They're not alone, and we are here to support them, and they get to meet other survivors," Ebeling said. "When you're at Relay there are so many people there that they don't understand who is actually survivors and who is just there for all the fun and who is there to help. They know that everyone here is a survivor and they can relate to each other."
Though diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2009, Ebeling was previously involved with Relay. She originally joined to honor her father, who died of lung cancer 13 years ago, and other family members who battled the disease.
"I have five kids and I don't want them to get cancer. I want to keep them safe, so everything that we could do now to keep them here in the future is key," Ebeling said.
"Survivors are the hope of the event. A lot of times some of our new Relayers are recently diagnosed and they can't see the light and they are just so down and then they see some of our survivors who have been survivors for 20, 30 years," Meredith Gavin, American Cancer Society community representative, said. "They realize cancer is not a death sentence. It's a bump in the road, but it's not the end."
Keith Swinney said Relay builds camaraderie within the community. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer five years ago, Swinney decided to join the effort.
"It's just a way for me to give back. ... There are so many people who did so much for me. This is now a part of who I am," Swinney said.
Dennis and Jamie Mayfield attended the survivor dinner for the first time. Their 15-year-old son, Cory, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor, in 2011. It will be six years before Cory can be deemed cancer free, Dennis said.
"There have been a lot of people, especially here at church, who cared about us. They fed us, offered to do anything we need," Dennis said, adding his son had to be put into an almost full body cast. Community members built a ramp into the Mayfield home.
"I think this is just a great thing," he added.
A key focus of Relay is to raise awareness, Ebeling said.
"They are why we are doing this," she said about the survivors as they began to trickle into Highland Park's fellowship hall. "Relay, it's about getting the awareness out there. Unfortunately everybody ends up being touched by cancer one way or another. A lot of people need to know that they need to get tested and that if you get tested early enough that your survival rate is so much higher."
FSGBank teller Karen Gritzner, who organized the survivor dinner, agreed.
"One of their things is cancer never stops. People with it, they deal with it every day, so it's to raise awareness that they are dealing with it always and just give one night of your time. It's just a small way of giving back," she said.
"It's kind of emotional because we have three (coworkers) who have recently been diagnosed," Gritzner said as to why she joined local efforts. "This is just being able to do something for them, giving them a special day for what they've gone through."
The local chapter has raised $30,000 of its 2013 goal of $50,000, Gavin said. There are currently 19 teams in Loudon County participating.
"All the money that is raised at Relay locally stays in our community," Ebeling said.
Survivors will kick off the Relay event as they take a survivor lap to celebrate the victory over cancer. Relay for Life will be held May 3 at Loudon High School.
For more information on Relay for Life or to donate, visit http://www.relayforlife.org/loudon