Cancer patients take the baton

The last few months have been emotional for Bob Kristiansen. The 49-year-old Lawrence resident was diagnosed with cancer on March 23, just a week before Easter. The road ahead will be difficult.

About 250 cancer survivors participated in the Survivors Walk during the 11th annual Relay for Life. The Friday night event, which benefits cancer research, was at Free State High School.

But on Friday night, Kristiansen found himself on a track surrounded by hope. Along with other Lawrence residents who have been diagnosed with cancer in the past six months, Kristiansen led the first lap around the Free State High School track for the Relay For Life, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.

“It feels good to look around and see survivors who are older, younger, male, female – across the board,” Kristiansen said. “It just shows you that this disease affects everybody, and that there is support.”

Cancer survivors and cure supporters gathered at the Free State track Friday for the 11th annual Relay for Life. To raise money for cancer research, 74 teams had at least one representative walking on the track from 7 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. today.

This year’s event raised more than $117,000 and drew approximately 900 participants, making it the largest and most lucrative Relay for Life in Lawrence history.

“It keeps growing,” said Tina Yates, event co-chairwoman. “I think more and more people know someone who gets diagnosed, and it hits close to home and they come out.”

While the event is geared toward a serious cause, participants turned it into an evening of hope and fun. The area around the track was transformed into a small city of tents, packed with portable grills and blankets where participants rested between walking shifts. This year, teams were encouraged to dress in costumes related to a television show or movie. A team from Lawrence Memorial Hospital chose “M.A.S.H” as its costume inspiration – which is how LMH radiology director Dave Sostarich ended up walking around the track dressed like a woman. Donned in a floor-length house dress, aqua and white boa, flowered hat and high-heeled sandals, Sostarich made a convincing Sgt. Klinger.

Debby Cummings, Lawrence, adjusts luminaria before the start of the 11th annual Relay for Life.

“I guess they asked me to do it because I was the only one who they thought would say yes,” he said.

But the evening featured serious moments of reflection as well. At 9 p.m., the participants began to light the 3,000 luminaria that lined the track, though an approaching storm relocated the event to the Free State gym shortly afterwards. Each luminaria bag had the name of a cancer survivor or victim written on it.

“It’s an emotional moment,” said Cris Aiken, the other event co-chairwoman, “to remember these people who have been affected by the disease.”