Maricopa Relay for Life

Cancer survivors took the first life at Maricopa’s Relay for Life event on Saturday.

MARICOPA — A life-affirming luncheon took place on a typical Arizona winter blue-sky, sunny day in the grassy area behind Copper Sky Fitness Center.

With Copper Sky Lake as a backdrop, two white top tents were filled with packed tables seating cancer survivors and caregivers in their lives, for Maricopa’s ninth annual Relay for Life Luncheon. Maricopa Relay for Life was started nine years ago by Maricopa residents and survivors, Gwen Trayler and Grace Gomez.

Relay for Life, an associate of the American Cancer Society, has been fighting Cancer with luncheons and relays since 1985, according to Becky Check, in charge of the event leadership team. Leaders from the Harrah’s Ak-Chin Culinary Department, including chefs, served up the plates as students from the Maricopa High School marketing club, DECA, volunteered alongside Ak-Chin to help out with whatever needs to be done, including set-up and break-down.

Angie Groeneveld, who runs the hospitality team for Harrah’s in Maricopa, said, “Every year we serve the survivors and caregivers lunch and participate in the walk, sometimes in tears.”

But the luncheon celebrated life and was accompanied by survivors and caregivers dancing lightheartedly to “It’s a Celebration,” as attendees clapped to the beat. The song was a last-minute thought for Councilwoman Nancy Smith, a three-year cancer survivor, and one of the hosts for the luncheon.

She thought of playing the song while talking to her husband, Pinal County Supervisor and former Maricopa Mayor Anthony Smith. DJ Demetrius of Keep the Beat played smooth jazz to open the luncheon and accommodated the group with “It’s a Celebration” at a moment’s notice.

Smith asked cancer survivors to stand at their tables as she called out years of survivorship, from 30-plus years, 25, 20, 15, 10, five, and last, “those diagnosed within five years and still fighting it,” said Smith.

Overnight campers took turns and walked around a chosen path at Copper Sky Regional Park for the 12 hours between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m., one person each hour, with someone in the camp always vigilant and awake “because cancer never sleeps,” said Check.

There was a lap for everyone, beginning at 5:30 p.m. with a survivor/caregiver lap, accompanied by Phoenix cover band Phoenix Rising and the local rock duo, Diztortion, accompanying the Luminaria Ceremony and Power of Purple Lap from 8 p.m. on.

Special speaker Toby Smith, a long-time Maricopa Relay volunteer, shared how cancer moved from being a “second cousin” with her Dad a survivor to a “first cousin looking for a place to stay,” when her daughter, Becca, was recently diagnosed in March 2019. Becca, who grew up with mom quoting cancer statistics as a Relay volunteer, quipped to her mother on diagnosis, “Mom, you always say that 1 in 3 women will experience cancer and since it wasn’t you or grandma, I always knew it would be me.” The family dubbed Becca’s malignant abdominal tumor, “Bertha”, and opted for so-far-successful surgical removal with three-month follow-ups.

“I’ll keep doing volunteer work until we find a cancer cure or I’m six feet under,” said Smith. “Hopefully, we cure cancer first.”

A Maricopa Legacy Traditional School teacher, who identified herself as Jamilla, shared her story of following up on a 10-year-old thyroid concern that had been silent, offering no symptoms or clues. After several exploratory surgeries, thyroid cancer was discovered and although she underwent no chemotherapy, she checks it out every three months to keep the progression in check. Cancer is no stranger in her life — she was a caregiver at age 19 to her maternal grandmother, helping her fight breast cancer.

Jamilla’s message is one “not only of prevention but also vigilance” as she urged the crowd to persist in screening, diagnosis and treatment.

“Don’t rely on your doctor to do everything,” she said. “You have to fight for yourself and for your family.”

Jamilla now uses her cancer experience as an open book and as a teaching tool in her classroom, educating her students all about cancer and even encouraging them to go into a science field to search for a cancer cure.