For survivors and those battling cancer, Relay for Life is a signal of hope

photo by: Autumn Bishop/LMH Health

LMH Health Cancer Center’s Relay for Life team poses for a photo.

One of the cardinal rules of journalism is not to insert yourself into a story. There’s always a part of the writer in each story they craft, but adding your own narrative isn’t done in a straight news piece. That is, until you write a piece about cancer and you happen to be the one battling the disease.

I can attest that fighting cancer doesn’t make my top 10 list of things I wanted to experience in life, so being diagnosed with breast cancer last year wasn’t my greatest moment. It’s been quite the journey — from starting chemotherapy just before Christmas to losing my hair. It’s also been eye-opening working at LMH and experiencing the expert care provided by my team at the LMH Health Cancer Center.

One of the things I’ve most been looking forward to since my diagnosis is the Douglas County Relay for Life. It’s a signal of support from the community to those like me who continue the fight, as well as to those who’ve recovered, supported a survivor or lost someone. The annual event kicks off at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 2, at Rock Chalk Park in Lawrence.

What is Relay for Life?

The idea of Relay for Life began in May 1985 in Tacoma, Washington, when Dr. Gordon “Gordy” Klatt walked and ran for 24 hours around a track with one goal: to raise money to help the American Cancer Society. As he traversed 83.6 miles, he thought of ways he could encourage others to take part, including having teams participate in a 24-hour fundraising event. During his inaugural run in 1985, Klatt raised $27,000 through pledges. The next year, 19 teams took part in the first Relay for Life, raising $33,000.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what Relay for Life really is. People hear ‘relay’ and they think running, but that’s not it at all,” said Mitch Montgomery, a physical therapist at LMH Health Therapy Services and co-chair of Douglas County Relay for Life. “The whole idea is that there’s someone on your team walking at all times in honor and memory of those who are or have battled cancer. The event also raises funds for the American Cancer Society and the continued fight against cancer.”

Beyond walking, there’s so much more to Relay for Life. The event begins with an opening ceremony followed by a survivor lap around the track for those who are currently battling or have survived their cancer. Caregivers join in for the next lap and after that, open walking begins.

This year’s event features a kids zone and a touch-a-truck event with first responder vehicles and a K9. Food trucks from local favorites including Barbwire BBQ, JB Tacos, Kona Ice and Uplift Coffee will also be on hand. An online silent auction will also take place from 8 a.m. on May 29 through 8:30 p.m. June 2. Find and bid on auction items at

A personal journey

Mitch Montgomery and his wife, Allie, have co-chaired the Douglas County Relay for Life event for three years, but their involvement goes back much further.

Allie participated in Relay for Life as a child with her father, who is a cancer survivor. The couple didn’t work with the relay during college but that all changed after she was diagnosed with brain cancer in October 2016.

“After that, we got involved and Allie started serving on the leadership team in 2017 or 2018,” Mitch said. “She did that for a couple of years before being asked to serve as chair, so I stepped in to co-chair at that time.”

Allie has had quite the journey with cancer. After facing several recurrences, the couple learned last year that cancer was found in some lymph nodes in Allie’s neck. She’s been through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and is doing well today.

It hits close to home for Mitch in other ways too. Both of his parents are cancer survivors — his mother dealt with skin cancer and his father with prostate cancer.

“Allie and I got married in October 2015. My folks picked us up at the airport when we returned from our honeymoon and that’s when they told us that my dad was sick,” he said. “The doctors continue to monitor him, but he’s doing well. It’s a strange coincidence that Allie was diagnosed almost exactly a year later.”

Lighting the night

One of the main features of Relay for Life occurs just after sunset with a luminaria ceremony. Paper bags dedicated to someone’s memory or in honor of a survivor line the track throughout the evening, and at 9:30 p.m., the bags are illuminated using battery-powered candles.

“It’s a somber and powerful ceremony,” Mitch said. “This year’s theme is Glow for Hope, so there will be luminarias in the west bleachers that spell out ‘hope’ at the same time. We turn all of the lights off and just spend a period of time doing quiet laps around the track.”

You can purchase a luminaria for this year’s event at Emprise Bank, 1121 Wakarusa Drive. Bags are $10 and all funds support the American Cancer Society.

“You can pick up multiple bags and give them to friends and family. Collect money for them and turn it in from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 30, at Emprise Bank or turn it in on the night of Relay for Life,” Mitch said. “You can also donate through the American Cancer Society app.”

Knowing you aren’t alone

Relay for Life is for cancer survivors, caregivers, friends and family. One of the most important aspects of the event is providing a sense of support and community. Cindy Crocker, a nurse navigator with the LMH Health Cancer Center, has been involved with Relay for Life for more than a decade. She understands how important it is for LMH to participate.

“Our team deals with cancer patients day in and day out, and we really participate for them,” she said. “There are so many people out there who have cancer — many that you wouldn’t know about. It’s a real eye-opener. Relay for Life allows us to show survivors and caregivers that they aren’t in this fight alone.”

Mitch wholeheartedly agrees. He knows that it’s a moment to recognize the journey and the work that goes into it.

“It’s not easy being a survivor and having to go through the treatment — it’s physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging,” he said. “For caregivers, being that support system can also take a toll. It’s important to be recognized for that too.”

Cancer has a wide reach and touches many lives surrounding those who have it. It’s not just happening to me. It’s happening to my husband, my kids, my family and friends. That’s why events like Relay for Life are so important. The number of participants has dipped since the COVID-19 pandemic, but Cindy, Mitch and I know how important is to show up for those who are affected by the disease.

“Check it out and give it a chance,” Mitch said. “It’s an important, meaningful time and a whole lot of fun.”

Things to know for the event

Planning to come out and support Relay for Life on June 2 at Rock Chalk Park? Here’s a timeline for the evening and what you should bring.

6 p.m.

Survivor registration

Luminaria sales

Food trucks (until 9 p.m.)

Kids zone

Photo scavenger hunt

Silent auction

7 p.m.

Opening ceremony and survivor lap

7:15 p.m.

Team laps

8 p.m.

Jazzercise of Lawrence

8:30 p.m.

Auction closes

Bubbles to Heaven

9 p.m.

Grab ‘n Glow Cookies

Auction pickup

9:30 p.m.

Luminaria ceremony

10 p.m.

Glow dance party

11 p.m.

Closing ceremony

Things to bring:

• Lawn chair

• Sunscreen

• Bug spray

• Tennis shoes and socks

• Money for food trucks

Pop-up canopy tents up to 10 feet by 10 feet with weights are welcome. Coolers with food and drink are also welcome, but don’t bring alcohol.

— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.


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