‘Let’s not forget what we are fighting for’

Stacy Garcia, left, and Nichole Osaki, both from Gilroy, dance to the live music as they make chocolate waffles at the Living Legacies Diner relay booth to raise money Saturday during the Relay For Life event at Christmas Hill Park.

Brittany Casarez, 38, got involved with Relay for Life to support her co-workers; three were diagnosed with cancer six years ago just weeks apart, and right after, they enlisted as volunteers for the American Cancer Society fundraiser.
Then, her mother lost friends to the disease, and another close friend was diagnosed for a second time. Every year, she walked for her friends, and got increasingly involved in planning the local relay.
This year, when she stepped up as event co-chair, her involvement became tragically more personal.
“Someone very close to me died – it still hasn’t hit me yet,” she said, fighting back tears. “I think I’m still in denial.”
In December last year, her husband’s uncle, Danny Sullivan, died after a two-and-a-half year battle with a stage IV strain of the disease. He was 52.
“This time, I walk for Danny,” she said, choking on her words. “Talk about taking the wind out of my sails … this was my 7-year-old daughter’s favorite uncle. For the first time I lost someone really, really close to me.”
Like for the 400-plus others at the Saturday through Sunday event, the relay helped her grieve, she said.
“It’s helping me process things,” she said. “It makes it easier for me get through this.”
Forty-two of the participants at the weekend fundraiser were cancer survivors, many of them walking the relay track at Christmas Hill Park with teams of family and friends to support them.
“Team Tom,” “Brian’s Carcinoid Warriors” and teams with many other names walked the park’s trail – all adding up to a 24-hour relay that ended with a closing ceremony Sunday morning. Many of those team’s namesake survivors shared their own stories of crisis and strength in overcoming the disease.
Like Millie Garcia, a 61-year-old Gilroy resident who credits her family’s solidarity with helping her pull through since her first lymphoma diagnosis seven years ago.
“No one with cancer is prepared to hear that they got it,” she said, camped by her “Team Millie” tent, where her family sold snacks to help raise their share of money for cancer research. “But what are you going to do? You have no choice but to stay positive. Relay’s been great because it’s given us something to celebrate over the years … and gives my family a healthy way to cope with this.”
The weekend relay was the culmination of months of fundraising, meetings, planning and promoting. It’s a community event that plays out in thousands of communities across the nation and one that’s been in Gilroy for 13 years. And people don’t just walk in a circle the whole time – there are games, bake sales, a Locks of Love donation drive, a cross-dressing Miss Relay pageant and other things to keep the relayers occupied and entertained for a full day. Gilroy’s relay raised about $113,000 this year – as of the latest tally.
Though the relay’s theme involves a fatal disease, the mood of the annual event is celebratory, noted Michelle Little, 47, who co-chaired this year’s relay with Casarez.
It’s about “research, education, advocacy and service,” Little says in her thank you address. “When it’s 2 p.m. and the sun is leaning on us, let us not forget what we are fighting for. When it’s 2 a.m. and we are cold and tired, let us not forget what we are fighting for.
“Our survivors are depending on us and our children are depending on us. We got this,” she said.

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