PUBLISHED: 11:29 AM on Wednesday, June 18, 2008
'Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.'
JUNEAU - Both of Sharon Lowe's aunts had had breast cancer. Then, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Four months later, Lowe was diagnosed with the same form of cancer and was determined to fight - and survive.

"I had several friends die of cancer, but I knew that mine wasn't (going to be fatal)," she said. "It was a bump in the road and I just wanted to get it over with. I know a lot of people where that's the attitude. You need to get through it."

And Lowe did get through it. She has been cancer-free for eight years. But the road ahead is still bumpy. An estimated 2,650 new cases of cancer will occur in Alaska in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society, and one in three Americans will have cancer during their lives.

Lowe, who retired three years ago, spends much of her time now volunteering with the American Cancer Society as the Event Chair for the annual Relay for Life.

"Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back" is the slogan for Relay for Life, which will take start in Juneau's Dimond Park at 4 p.m. July 19 and last until noon the next day. The 20-hour vigil is the largest fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.

Relay for Life, or simply "Relay," is also about creating a community to remember those who have died and to celebrate survivorship.

When Pat Yearty, a breast cancer survivor and past Relay chair, first heard about Relay she was excited to gather everyone in the community touched by cancer.

"I thought, oh, this is good, I can celebrate," she said. "Sounds like a big party! I think of someone who's a cancer survivor and I just want to go up and say 'good for you!'"

Yearty acknowledges that not everyone is as willing to talk about cancer, which is one reason why she is so vocal.

photo courtesy of American Cancer Society, Alaska
  Participants in the 2007 Juneau Relay for Life begin the relay. Relay for Life is the largest fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, with proceeds aiding in cancer research and treatment. This year's relay will start July 19 at Dimond Park.
"It's a difficult thing to face and talk about," Yearty said "It's hard to find someone who does want to come out and talk."

Yearty remembered when her mother had breast cancer and talking about the disease was taboo.

"They only said the word in whispers," she said. "Nobody said anything about it because they couldn't do anything."

Now, with vast improvements in detection and treatments more can be done. But that still doesn't make the battle easy.

"There's nothing worse than being told you have cancer and feeling totally helpless," Yearty said. "It takes all your choices away. The first decision you need to make is that you're going to fight back, you're going to do the treatment."

Early detection

When Wanda Fleming was 39, she decided to have a doctor look into some stomach problems she'd been having.

"He said, it's (colorectal) cancer," Fleming remembered. "And I was like, oh, okay. Now, I think he was a little more upset than I was. I said, 'so what's next?'"

Colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, is the third most common type of cancer for both men and women. What came next for Fleming was an operation which removed six inches of her colon. The recovery period was difficult but she didn't need additional treatment.

"I think because I got it so early, I didn't have to have (chemotherapy)," she said. "I feel that because I got it so early, that's what saved me."

Fleming can't stress early detection enough. She has witnessed what can happen if symptoms go undiagnosed too long.

"I had a friend who passed away who had the symptoms and she did not go see the doctor in time," she said. "To me it's very important that when you have something you get it checked out."

Sharon Lowe credits early detection with her successful treatment of breast cancer.

"It was a blessing they caught it on a mammogram," Lowe said. "Get your mammograms, whatever you do. They can pick up things neither you nor the doctor can feel."

A way to fight back

With increased hope for survival, attitudes towards cancer are changing. More and more people are "coming out of the cancer closet" and talking about their experiences.

"It's not something you keep private anymore," said Andrea Goedderz with the Alaska chapter of the American Cancer Society. "(Surviving cancer) is something you're proud of."

And whether they are currently fighting cancer, are a survivor, or are close to someone who has battled cancer, Goedderz said, people want a way to fight back.

Relay for Life offers a way to go beyond the individual battle. With the money raised from Relays around the country, The American Cancer Society is often the first organization to fund new cancer research and second only to the federal government in amount of funding provided. With every passing year there is more hope for early detection and successful treatment.

Many Relay participants say the most powerful part of Relay is the lighting of the luminaria, decorated bags containing candles lit in memory of those lost to cancer and in honor of those who are fighting and surviving.

"Believe me, you don't see many dry eyes," Yearty said.

It is hard to find someone who will not be touched by cancer in his or her life. Lowe described a recent event for teenagers in the Mat-Su Valley in which everyone standing was asked to sit down in turn if they had cancer; if they have survived cancer if they had family members who had cancer; and then if they had friends with cancer. At the end, one person was left standing.

Even people who think they don't know anyone affected by cancer will often see neighbors and friends at Relay, Goedderz said.

The Relay for Life allows the entire community to stand - and walk - together against cancer. Relayers stress that the battle against cancer, whether fought as an individual or a community, is always a battle worth fighting.

Relay for Life of Juneau/Douglas will take place at Dimond Park/Riverbend Elementary School from July 19 at 4:00 p.m. until July 20 at noon. Organizers are still looking for volunteers, sponsors and entertainment.

For more information or to get involved visit the Juneau Relay for Life website at or contact Sharon Lowe at 789-1821 or To learn more about the American Cancer Society visit or call 1-800-ACS-2345.

Katie Spielberger can be reached at