June 25, 2006 – Dressed in bright gold madras costumes, the St. Thomas Heritage Dancers moved easily through the warm Caribbean twilight. Gathered on the northern end of the Charlotte Amalie High School track, the performers twirled full skirts and pulled many community members in and out of the dance line. Then, as one song ended and another began, the group smiled broadly as they were showered with a spray of bubbles, which wafted through the air and hit the faces of many delighted children waiting nearby.
Such was the scene Saturday evening, as throngs of residents gathered to relax, have some fun and walk to help find a cure for cancer in the fifth annual Relay for Life, organized by the American Cancer Society.
"What a wonderful way to celebrate life and hope in 2006," Diana Parker, ACS's honorary survivor and public relations spokesperson, said after the dancers took their seats. "And thanks to the generosity and support of so many of you, I'm sure we'll find a way to get closer to our goal of beating cancer head on."
During her keynote speech, Parker added that community support has also helped the society to provide breast, lung and prostate cancer screenings to 1,000 V.I. residents over the past year. Such support, she said, also helped Parker to get through her own battle with breast cancer.
"It was after I was diagnosed in 1998 that the bell rang for me," she said. "It forced me to become more aware of what was going on in my own body and made me learn that we all have to consistently monitor our health by going regularly to the doctor, eating right and exercising."
Parker said she has stayed healthy over the past four years – since her cancer has been in remission. However, she said that she couldn't have gotten through the recovery process without the love shown by friends and family. "So we must all remember to take care of each other and ourselves," she said. "And for all of you that have come out tonight, keep on keeping on with the rest of your life."
Parker's call for residents to live a healthy lifestyle was echoed in presentations made by various Relay panelists, including registered dietician Ermin Olive.
"Fighting cancer, along with things like diabetes or heart disease, requires a positive lifestyle and a commitment to improving your dietary habits and exercise habits," Olive said. "That means making sure you're screened every year, staying away from the sun and improving your diet."
Olive said studies show that an unhealthy diet can be linked to certain types of cancer. "So when we say eat healthy, that means getting more fruits, veggies and whole grains, and cutting down on saturated fats. It also means cutting your serving sizes and exercising regularly," she said.
Participating in the Relay is a good first step, she added, pointing to community members who were walking briskly or jogging around the track. "After this, you just have to make a conscious effort to be healthy."
While festivities continued around the field – including a scavenger hunt, jump rope presentation and band performances – a special event was also in the works for some of the Relay's most valued participants: the cancer survivors.
"This year, we're having a special dinner for our survivors," Mable Harrigan, chair of the society's Survivors Committee said. "It's something that we used to have, and something that we thought we should do again."
Pointing out the dinner tables, laden with plates, utensils and white linen table clothes, Harrigan added, "It's important to do something special for them. As a survivor myself, I know how much it means to have people out there supporting you. And I'm very moved that so many of our residents decided to come out here today and support us."
After dinner, once the last rays of sun had faded and the sharp yellow lights of the track had been turned off, the survivors gathered to participate in another Relay tradition – the luminary ceremony.
Wearing yellow Relay shirts, the group began its lap under an arch of blue-and-white balloons, walking along to music provided by the CAHS marching band. As they walked, other Relay participants lined the sides of the track, applauding or calling out words of encouragement.
"This is really beautiful," one resident said, as the survivors moved through the night, faces lit only by the glow of the candles placed along the path. "They are all so strong."
The fifth annual Relay for Life began Saturday at 4 p.m. and finished Sunday at 11 a.m. According to the ACS Chairwoman Barbara Petersen, 94 teams participated this year.
Petersen said the organization hopes to raise $300,000 from this event–$50,000 more than last year.
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