Jackson County’s Relay for Life is a relay of emotions.
For cancer survivors, it’s a time to smile, laugh and celebrate life.
During the first lap of Friday night’s 6-hour event at the Seymour Middle School track and field, people of all ages came together to walk their victory lap.
Some were new to the survivor’s group, while others proudly held signs declaring themselves 10-, 20- and even 40-year survivors.
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Stephanie Baker, 28, of Columbus, made her first appearance in the event this year. She is celebrating 15 months in remission having been diagnosed with Stage 3B cervical cancer when she was 26.
“It was a shock, but it wasn’t a shock,” she said. “They had been watching me for a couple of years.”
Baker received the cervical cancer vaccine and then tested positive for Human Papillomavirus or HPV after her third dose of the vaccine, she said. She had a Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP) to slough off the abnormal cells on her cervix, and when she went for her sixth-month checkup, the news wasn’t good.
“I had cancer…bad,” she said.
She was able to fight off the disease and went into remission for five months, but the cancer came back.
Last year, she had wanted to participate in Relay, but was unable to get off work to do so, she said.
“And I didn’t feel like I was that much of a survivor,” she added. “I was still super weak, but I feel good now.”
Baker said she was excited to be able to walk the survivor’s lap this year.
“I think it’s amazing there are so many survivors; I wish there were more,” she said.
Before walking, Baker purchased two luminaries that were lit as part of the annual luminary ceremony.
She made one in memory of her Nana, Ollie Wilson, who passed away from leukemia when Baker was in kindergarten. The second one she made for herself.
More than 500 luminaries were placed around the track and lit as participants walked, remembering their loved ones lost to cancer.
Baker was joined at Relay by her mother, Debbie Baker, and family friend, Debra Jaynes, who works with Debbie at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour.
“I wanted to be here to support her,” Debbie Baker said of walking in the caregiver’s lap.
Watching her daughter battle cancer was more difficult that if she would have got the diagnosis herself, she said.
“Worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” she said. “I would have traded her places a million times.”
Jaynes also is a survivor, having beaten breast cancer six years ago.
“I wanted to walk it with Stephanie because I think she is just amazing,” Jaynes said. “To battle cancer at such a young age and have such a positive attitude, she is an inspiration.”
Jaynes said she supported Relay for Life before she was diagnosed, but said afterwards it has a different meaning.
“It’s a whole different feeling when you are walking the walk,” she said. “You don’t have to wonder what it’s like, you know.”
For Seymour High School senior Michaela Guffey, being a part of Relay for Life was a way to honor and remember her mom, Teresa, who died of cancer just a few days after Michaela turned 12.
The loss of her mother at such a young age made a major impact on Michaela’s life.
“I’ve always come to Relay ever since that happened,” she said. “I’ve never been on a team, but my dad and my sister would come too.”
This was the first year she has organized a team, getting her friends, classmates and some teachers from Seymour High School involved. Together they raised more than $1,000.
“I’ve always thought about it, but I guess I was too shy until this year when I started to come out of my shell a little bit,” she said. “I just wanted to get more involved.”
Michaela said, although for her, the team was to honor and remember her mother, she also wanted to show support to others who had lost loved ones to cancer.
“There are other people that have lost parents or siblings or grandparents to cancer, so I figured we could all come together,” she said.
After walking in the remembrance lap, Michaela said she was glad to see so many people in the community at the event.
“It feels really great to see us all get involved, and do something together,” she said. “It’s not very often that people at the high school really come together for a cause like this.
Every step she took, Michaela said she thought about her mom.
“I got kind of teary eyed during the survivor walk, just wishing she was here to do that,” Guffey said.
She hopes the high school will continue to have a team, even after she graduates.
“I’ll definitely come back to walk and help with fundraising, but I want someone else to take it over,” she said.
Besides being a time of celebration and remembrance, Relay for Life also raises money to help fund cancer research and programs through the American Cancer Society.
By the end of the event, a total of $44,871 had been raised through team fundraisers along with individual donations and business sponsorships.
Event chair Amberly Brewer said everyone participating in Relay for Life is considered a hero.
“Caregivers to cancer patients and survivors are hidden heroes… and should be celebrated,” she said.
Relay for life started in 1985 with one man walking for 24 hours around a track in Tacoma, Washington raising $27,000 to help the American Cancer Society fight cancer.
Since then, Relay for Life has raised nearly $5 billion and is held in 5,000 other communities across America and in 20 others countries. The four million participants worldwide all have one goal, to save lives and create a world with more birthdays, Brewer said.
“This is an amazing gathering,” Brewer said. “Everyone is here for the same reason, to put an end to cancer, one step at a time.”