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April 27, 2013

Cancer survivors, caregivers share stories

Annual fundraiser next week

Recalling their own battles and the battles won and lost by their loved ones, participants in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of Cullman County met Thursday night in advance of the 19th installment of the local fundraiser.

Relay For Life will be held from 7 p.m., Friday, May 3 through 7 a.m., Saturday, May 4, at the Cullman County Fairgrounds. The event, as always, will kick off with the Survivor’s Walk at 7 p.m. All are cancer survivors are invited to attend to celebrate another year of survivorship.

During Thursday night’s meeting, several participants stood up to explain their reason for raising money for the ACS through Relay For Life. The common theme was family, with most of them having lost a family member to cancer, cared for are caring for a loved one with cancer, and some who survived cancer or are still in treatment.

Tim Hermetz’ family has been raising money for cancer research since the late 1980s, when his brother Todd raised more than $2,300 to be named the “biggest rat” in town for the ACS. The rat moniker was in reference to the mice scientist used in their research. He later became the first president of the Cullman chapter of ACS, Hermetz said, and his mother Mryna  - a two-time cancer survivor - went on to raise money for ACS and began fielding a team for Relay For Life.

Four years ago, Hermetz was diagnosed with stage 4 mesothelioma, an environmental cancer that usually doesn’t present symptoms until the late stages. Due to the severity of his case, Hermetz said even some of the most well-known cancer treatment centers would not provide him with treatments.

He was assisted by the Cullman Regional Medical Center’s Nurse Navigation Program, a free service that put him in contact with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., who agreed to offer surgery and treatments. Since then, he’s had a half-dozen surgeries and 30 chemotherapy treatments. He’s also been diagnosed with leukemia and lung cancer.

Through it all, he said he’s received strength and support from the volunteers who make up Relay For Life of Cullman County and the American Cancer Society.

“I praise God every day that I live another day to fight,” Hermetz said, and he encourages the community to show their support Relay For Life.

“This is about life and death for so many people,” he said.

Kellian Carpenter, a local youth participating in the event, said many people may not understand Relay for Life and how helpful it is to cancer patients and care givers. Current patients have the chance to meet survivors, and that “renews hope in their lives,” he said. “Caregivers talk with other people who understand what they’re going through.

“Our goal is to educate people every day and raise money to fight this disease and find a cure,” he said.

Jethro Harbison, who is a caregiver for his wife, recalled how terrified he was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer about 20 years ago. “I considered it a death sentence,” he said.

The fear didn’t ease up after she had surgery and started her treatments.

“We had some scary moments after she came home,” he said. “When she collapsed in the bathroom I was terrified.” The fall wasn’t serious, he said, but at the time it felt that way.

“I lived in fear most of the time,” he said.

Harbison said he also gained a new respect for cancer patients who go through the rigors of chemotherapy.

“I so much admire you for all the courage you have,” he said to those in the audience. “She is one of the most courageous people I know.”

She would need that courage about 12 years after that first diagnosis, when the cancer returned, and five years after that, and two years after that. But each time “there was a new drug” she could take, Harbison said.

“I know all those chemicals were developed by research funded by the American Cancer Society,” he said. “I Relay because people like my wife have a chance to live if treatments are improved and advanced.”

Starting locally in 1995, the fundraiser has generated more than $2 million over the years, which has gone to help fund research for new medications and treatments, to help cancer patients directly, to educate the public on ways to prevent cancer, and to advocate for better health coverage and laws to benefit the public.

This year, the American Cancer Society will celebrate its 100th anniversary and hoping to soon finish the fight against cancer. As team development chair Helen Allen said, “We hope it won’t be long until we put the American Cancer Society out of business.”

For more information about Relay For Life of Cullman County, contact Helen Allen at (256) 709-4019 or visit the event website at www.relayforlife.org/cullman.

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