‘A gift to each other’

Cancer survivors, caregivers reflect during Relay for Life
Crystal Epperheimer rests her head on her sister Sidney during a memorial for the victims of cancer. The girls said they were remembering their friend Tony Collins.

Cayla Salyers said wearing purple felt weird.


It also felt strange to walk a lap around the course set up at the Soldotna Sports Center on Friday.

But, calling herself a cancer survivor is the strangest thing of all, she said.

For a while she was in denial — she didn’t tell anyone, save for family and co-workers.

“I just didn’t want to believe it was cancer,” she said. “I was 21. I was young and it’s supposed to be the best years of your life and you don’t ever expect it.”

Now her emotions about the ordeal are even more complicated, she said.

“Because mine was super easy,” said the 23-year-old Kenai resident, tears gathering in her eyes. “Three weeks and, ‘Oh, it’s gone now.’”

Although she knows other cancer patients still fighting and “have it way worse,” she said she is thankful to be able to participate in the 15th annual American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life of the Central Peninsula.

Last March, Salyers said she had a section of skin on her right shoulder removed during a three-day operation. Several dermatologists had told her it was just a cyst or a birthmark, but as it grew and turned purple, Salyers became concerned. What her doctor said would be the worst-case scenario came true.

“I screamed,” she said. “My mom found out first … she called me and said, ‘Cayla you need to come outside.’ She was crying so I knew something was wrong. ‘You have cancer.’ Automatically I was on the floor balling.”

Salyers said she participated in Relay last year, but didn’t walk a survivors lap or wear the purple survivor shirt. This year she did. It was hard to think about anything other than putting one step in front of the other, but after sitting down to have dinner in a room full of other survivors, she said she made a personal change for the better because of the experience.

“I care about people more, that’s a big thing,” she said. “I used to be really mean and I didn’t even realize it.”

Although Salyers is still sorting through her emotions, 52-year-old Corey Hall has learned to let hers go.

Hall, a deputy city clerk for the City of Kenai, said she is a 17-year survivor of breast cancer and has been participating in Relay since it started in the area.

Although her emotions don’t really get the best of her anymore, the memory of her fight with breast cancer, and bone cancer nine years later, are always in the back of her mind, she said.

“It has been a part of who I am for so long that, it just is, I guess,” she said.

She said it was frustrating however to think about there being “still so much you can’t do.”

“All the money and the work that we’ve put toward it and it is something that we’re still fighting,” she said.

Hall said she thought it was important to give back to the cancer community to help raise money for research in hopes of finding a cure. As of the Relay’s closing ceremonies Saturday afternoon, 33 teams and 285 registered participants had raised $75,076, organizers said. Donations are still accepting until Aug. 31 at relayforlifeofcentralpeninsula.org.

Hall said money raised through the American Cancer Society has done a lot of good; when she was first diagnosed, treatment wasn’t as advanced. Now there are more options for chemotherapy and scientists have made advances on counteracting side effects of treatments.

“It was pretty scary at that time — 17 years ago things were a lot different,” she said. “They have really made a lot of advances now.”

Kenai resident Susan Smalley agreed.

“I had my mom’s cancer, but I did not have my mom’s treatment,” she said.

Standing in the middle of the Sports Center conference room, Smalley, 63, talked about what it took to be a survivor and asked for people to join the Cancer Action Network, a group of people who’s membership fees go to fund legislative lobbying efforts in support of cancer research.

“We’re all a gift to each other,” she said looking around. “… We talk about fighting back and survivors really get that.”

Smalley said she is a 10-year survivor of breast cancer. Even though she survived, she knew of many more who didn’t succeed in their fight against cancer.

“Every year the list is longer,” she said.

But there’s hope, she added. During the first few Relays there were many more memorial luminaria than purple survivor shirts walking laps. But now that’s changed.

“More purple shirts, more birthdays,” Smalley said. 

Smalley spearheaded this year’s effort to make a quilt of survivors, calling it a “portrait of hope.”

Names included those with many years as a survivor and with not so many:

Peg Rogers – 16 years

Denyse Mitchell — 17 years

Glenn Tinker — 1 year

Joni Dykstra — 2 weeks

Chase Carter said participating in the Relay was a homecoming for him. The 26-year-old grew up in Kasilof fighting leukemia in middle school and high school.

Carter, now cured of his condition, works as an American Cancer Society Community Relationship Manager in Anchorage. He said he helped organize the first Relay for Life on the Central Peninsula.

“It was fun,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing but it was cool to see the community wrapping around, not just me, but like cancer is so ubiquitous and indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter what age or gender you are, but people really wrapped together and supported each other. That was really neat.”

He said it was fulfilling to see how much his hometown Relay has grown.

“I can’t remember the exact amount that we raised back then, probably about $30,000 and now our goal is $95,000,” he said. “Just to see that growth is really cool.”

Carter said he has attended Relays across the country and Alaska.

“The people are really saying enough is enough of cancer and we have the ability to do something about it,” he said.

Kenai resident Pam Burns agreed.

“One day they are going to say, ‘Cancer?’ What was that?” she said, drawing a cheer from Carter.

Burns said she had skin cancer on her nose and her mother died of brain cancer. Her husband Roger also had skin cancer on his arms, ear and head, but is cancer free now.

Burns is proud to be a caregiver — a role she said is critical in the battle against cancer. She said it was “chilling” to see all the caregivers take the second lap with the survivors.

“I don’t think they understand the magnitude that a caregiver does,” she said. “Just the hours of going back and forth for treatments. I think a caregiver is just as important as a survivor because they are surviving it too.”

During Roger’s cancer, she had to take a leave of absence from her job at Walmart.

“He couldn’t move his head because they froze the whole side of his head to take off this part of his ear and we just couldn’t move him,” she said. “So we just had to sit and look at each other.”

She pulled a handwritten note from her pocket.

“Thank you for holding my hands through my tough times, for the inspiration you gave me and for being my best friend and my wife. I couldn’t have made it without you,” it read. It was signed simply, Roger.