Campus Life in your community

Surviving, remembering, and fighting back

Members of the MIT community share stories of their participation in Relay For Life

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The Green Building displays a bright purple ribbon hack on its tall facade Saturday night in support of Relay for Life.
Joseph Maurer—The Tech
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Students from Wellesley College play a game during the Relay for Life on Saturday night. The relay was held from 6 p.m. on Saturday to 6 a.m. on Sunday in Johnson Athletic Center, and raised over $76,000 for the American Cancer Society.
Melissa Renée Schumacher—The Tech

What better reason is there to pull an all-nighter than to support the worldwide fight against cancer? This weekend, over 1,000 people sacrificed a night of sleep to participate in the Relay For Life event organized by the MIT chapter of Colleges Against Cancer (CAC).

From 6 p.m. Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday, hundreds of walkers, joggers, and a unicyclist circled around the Johnson track. In addition to the core of every Relay event — the celebratory Survivor Lap kicking off the event, the Luminaria Ceremony with hundreds of lighted glowsticks shining with hope in the darkness of the night, and the Fight Back Ceremony when participants pledge to spread awareness and take action — the night was packed with fun activities. Participants listened to guest speeches, watched performances by student a capella and dance groups, participated in group exercise activities like Zumba, and competed in ice cream eating and Red Bull paper plane contests. Teams also operated a variety of fundraising booths around the track, such as a photo booth, massage booth, and jail-your-friends booth. During the Fight Back Ceremony at 1 a.m., a Skype session was held with Christian L. Welch ’13, the student battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma who is the inspiration behind the Chris Welch Support Team.

Relay For Life is the largest nationwide fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, with over $4 billion raised since its inception. For every dollar raised by the American Cancer Society, 79 cents goes towards funding programs and services. MIT’s Colleges Against Cancer group organized Relay at MIT for the first time last year and had about 600 participants, raising over $40,000. This year, 1,030 participants on 83 teams raised over $70,000, and donations are still being accepted online.

Out of all the charitable events held around the world, why do millions of people choose to participate in Relay? Because cancer can affect anyone. According to the American Cancer Society, in Massachusetts alone there will be 38, 470 new cancer cases in 2012. In the MIT community, there are countless students, faculty, staff, and families who have been touched by cancer in some way. Some of their stories are below.

The MIT Community Shares “Why I Relay”

“My dad was always someone I looked up to in life, and he was a fantastic role model for me. He wouldn’t let me settle for anything less than the best that I could achieve.

When I first told him I got into MIT, on December 17th, he was absolutely overjoyed. He was the happiest I’d seen in years. Little did I know that one of the most distressing days of his life had happened only about two months prior, which I wouldn’t know about for another four months. Through those six months, he fought cancer with everything he had, going through pain week in and week out, all while keeping it a secret from me.

Needless to say, when I finally found out about everything my dad went through to see me graduate and row at nationals, I was both touched and distraught. I couldn’t quite believe that I had been able to live in such happy ignorance for so many months, and that my dad had gone through unimaginable pain, all with the goal of seeing my accomplishments. Coming from someone whose sport (crew) is essentially who can go the longest before passing out from pain, that is a lot of pain.

As I packed up my life into three bags, I saw the day fast approaching when I would get on a plane and leave my home in Seattle for the new and strange world of MIT. It was clear that my dad was getting worse by the day, even by the hour, and I was heartbroken knowing that when I left my house to go to the airport, even under the best of circumstances, there would be little chance that I would ever see him again. So as my mom, aunt, uncle and I all sat around the house the day before I was to leave, when things suddenly went from bad to worse, we were hardly surprised.

My dad fought a 10-month battle against advanced stomach cancer, not knowing how long he could keep it at bay. Yet, despite everything against him, he made it to the day before I left for college. He saw me all the way through to the next stage of my life. And that is what makes it impossible to overstate his importance in my life. Now, hardly a day goes by where I don’t think about him, or this past summer, but I can rest easier knowing that he lived up to his goal. This is who I take my inspiration from now. If he could stay strong in the face of overwhelming odds, and achieve everything he wanted, I can only hope that I am half as strong, to be able to overcome every obstacle in my life. While it was one of the hardest summers of my life, it was also one of the most important, and looking back at the time I was able to spend with him before he died, one of my favorite.

This is why I jumped at the opportunity to sign up for Relay For Life, and why I share this story with you now, despite knowing full well that I have homework and a thousand other tasks that I need to take care of. Although early death will most likely never be eliminated from this world, it seems to me that we should look at every glimmer of hope we can find, hold on tight, and never let it go.”

Augusciak is a member of the MIT Crew Relay team.

“My grandmother got cancer when I was very young. I didn’t really understand what was happening at the time — I just knew that this was a menace that affects a lot of people, and it had a huge effect on my family. When I was in junior high and high school, when I would talk about this, my teachers would tell me, ‘oh, you should go cure cancer, you should look into that,’ but I never thought that was something that I was really interested in because I didn’t really understand it at the time and it seemed like such an intractable problem. But I came to realize that this was actually a huge burden and something that was really worth my time. So I Relay for my grandmother, and I Relay to help support this effort to give people hope that one day, this will not be the problem it is, that one day we’ll have the cure.”

A Stanford MS/BS graduate now working towards a PhD in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, much of Engreitz’s research has involved studying the molecular processes that make tumors tick. In his words, however, “that’s not going to help people for many, many years. Any insights that I glean in graduate school, should they become lucky enough to actually go into practice, are still a decade away from implementation. That’s why I thought Relay was a great way to get involved and help this community immediately.”

Jesse Engreitz is the Vice President of Public Relations on the MIT Relay For Life Planning Committee.

“Just from my observations in the hospital, I feel like there are so many people who are affected by cancer. Not just people who have cancer, but people who aren’t even directly involved are still affected by it. After going through treatment, I went to speak at an event, and when I asked everyone in the room who had had cancer or been affected by cancer to raise their hand, every single person raised their hand.

My favorite part of Relay is definitely the Luminaria Ceremony. I spoke at it last year, and the whole scene was really moving. Everyone gathers around and you listen to someone speak about the reasons to be there, why the whole night is happening. Everyone has a glowstick, and they ask you to step on the track and stack your glowstick. The first are the survivors, and then like, your mom or dad had cancer, your brother or sister, and it keeps going until everyone is on the track. It’s a walk of silence. It really helps you understand how many people are affected by cancer and how many people are doing something about it. It reminds you of why you’re there, spending those 12 hours in Johnson Track.”

At 15, Allegra “Ally” Hawkins was diagnosed with and treated for the aggressive cancer Burkitt’s lymphoma, which is much more rare than Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Only around 300 new cases are reported in the U.S. every year. After participating in Relay last year as a member of Alpha Phi’s team, Hawkins joined the MIT Colleges Against Cancer group. For her, Relay is a way of giving back to all those who are still in the hospital fighting, those who didn’t make it, parents, caregivers, and everyone else involved.

Hawkins is the Vice President of Activities on the MIT Relay For Life Planning Committee.

“Last year was my first Relay, and besides being a lot of fun, the event was really meaningful because I had sisters on the team who were directly affected by cancer. My uncle had leukemia, but he was really lucky in that he survived because my dad was a bone marrow match. That was so lucky; that was a really difficult time for my family. I’ve heard countless stories and know of people who have lost parents and other family members. I think that growing up, you shouldn’t have to grow without a parent, and parents shouldn’t have to see their kids go before them. So that’s why I Relay.”

Iris joined Colleges Against Cancer after Relay last year, which she participated in as a member of the Pi Beta Phi team.

Sheu is the Vice President of Team Fundraising on the MIT Relay For Life Planning Committee.

“I did Relay For Life in my high school sophomore, junior, and senior year. Mainly I did it because one of my best friends was one of the organizers of the event and was super into it. I would sell puppy chow to raise money and collect donations. My grandma had cancer when I was pretty young and survived, but I was very young, so I didn’t realize how serious cancer is and how there are many who don’t survive. One of my friends from high school had cancer his freshman year, but I only really knew him starting sophomore year. So I knew people who had cancer and survived, but I was either not at an age where it really took effect or just didn’t know them until later. Nevertheless, I knew that Relay was for a very good cause.

Last year, I did Relay for similar reasons as in high school: it was a good cause, a fun event, etc. This year, I Relay for something even greater. Earlier this year I found out that one of my good friends at MIT, Chris Welch, the person who would let me complain about my week even when he had way too much work, the person who sent me a zip called DoNotStress, the person who would give me a hug if I was sad, the person who would come into my suite and ask for a sandwich, had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now that I’m older, I realize that cancer is a big and serious deal. And this year, I still Relay for my grandma and my friend Rob, but I also Relay for Chris in hopes that his ending will be just like theirs: beating cancer.”

Joanie C. Weaver ’14 is a member of the Chris Welch Support Team.