Celebrating life

Participants in this weekend's cancer relay will pay tribute to indomitable human spirit

Posted: Friday, May 31, 2002

Six and a half months ago Sharon Backhause was planning for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and looking forward to her two son's visits home from college.

She wasn't thinking she would soon have to pick up the phone to call her friends and family and give them the worst news of her life, but Nov. 19, 2001, the day doctors confirmed her worst fears, she had to do just that.

Backhause first found the golf ball sized lump in her breast only seven days before she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her life changed forever.

"I have cancer, I have cancer, I have cancer -- I kept saying to myself in my head. I gave myself 12 hours to cry and scream and yell," she said. "But then I asked Christ, 'you are going to get me through this, aren't you?' My transition from denial to acceptance was actually pretty fast."

Accepting the reality of her own mortality has been easier with a support system of her church, family and friends that is always available to lean on, said Backhause, of Kenai.

She even views the cancer as a gift from God -- a gift that has allowed her to grow a more acute sense of the world.

"I am more aware of every gift each day is, more aware of the time I spend with my children and husband."

After learning of his mother's breast cancer, her middle child, Jeremiah, came home from college in Minnesota to help his father and younger sister take care of her. Her husband also has been instrumental in her positive approach to her treatment.

"He is a take charge kind of guy. He said, 'We will be proactive instead of reactive.' He is my main support after Christ," said Backhause of her husband, Lance, who for Valentine's Day this year bought her a $600 wig of human hair to make up for her hair lost as a result of chemotherapy.

Backhause began her fifth round of chemo Thursday, two days after her 45 birthday. She is still waiting to see how this new bout will affect her ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

Still, only 24 hours after a chemo treatment, Backhause will join around 150 other cancer survivors and patients in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life which will be from 6 p.m. today until 6 p.m. Saturday at Skyview High School.

"It is uplifting for them to see that other people fought the battle and survived. It brings the community together. Everyone is vulnerable to cancer, but everyone can all fight it, too," said Kathy Lopeman, chair of the relay committee and coordinator for the oncology infusion center at Central Peninsula General Hospital.

The event begins with a survivors' walk, in which anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer can participate, at 6 p.m. followed by 24 hours during which teams and individuals can walk, run or bike for cancer research.

Last year, more than 1,000 participants raised $71,000, 52 percent of which stayed in Alaska and the remainder of which went to the American Cancer Society for research.

"I am looking forward to seeing friends that I didn't even know had it. I have just joined a very elite group of people, special people," Backhause said. "I will be remembering the people that died as I walk ... because (cancer) it so prevalent, there is so much of it, and no one needs to die from it. Not any more."

Backhause will be remembering people like Shane Hawkins, who died at age 26 in April after a three-year battle with a rare form of bone cancer.

"He most definitely was not a man beaten down by cancer. The cancer didn't make him. It didn't control his life at all," said his wife, Sarah, who will walk today and Saturday to show that the cancer didn't win with her husband's death.

"It can't keep me down. I want to celebrate his life and honor him. He fought valiantly for three years," she said of of her husband. The couple would have celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary this year.

Hawkins and her husband first participated in the relay in 1999 after he was told he would never walk again.

"The first year that we did it, when he walked around in the survivor's walk was a big triumphant moment," said Hawkins who, along with her 3-year-old son, Jonathon, and 35 friends from her church, will camp at the event for the full 24 hours.

"I encourage people to come out. It is a healthy way to grieve and to express your admiration for that person and your love."

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