The American Cancer Society estimates nearly 14 million people in America have been diagnosed with cancer. Shannon O’Keefe of Sycamore is helping lead the fight against cancer in DeKalb County.
O’Keefe has been the event chair for Relay for Life of DeKalb County for five years. She first participated in the event when she was a junior in high school to support a friend who was diagnosed with cancer during middle school. She continued to participate in Relay for Life through college. Now, she helps organize and plan the event each year.
Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society’s largest annual fundraiser, is not a race. Although participants may run if they want to, O’Keefe sees the event as a race to the end of cancer and the discovery of a cure.
This year’s Relay for Life of DeKalb County will be held at Sycamore High School overnight from June 21 to 22. The event opens to the public at 4 p.m. June 21, and the opening ceremony starts at 6 p.m. From 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., one member from each of the registered teams will be moving on the track at all times. The money teams raise through pledges and donations goes directly to benefit the cancer society. Last year, almost 1,000 people attended the event, and a larger crowd is expected this year.
Between her day job and overseeing preparations for the event, O’Keefe met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss Relay for Life.
Milton: How did you learn about Relay for Life?
O’Keefe: I originally learned about the ACS when I was 9. My 3-year-old cousin was diagnosed with cancer. My dad started donating to ACS once a year. I remember him explaining to my sister and me what the American Cancer Society was. My cousin passed away when I was 12 and she was 6. So that was my first touch and experience with cancer. That was really hard. Then my dad explained to my sister and me why he was continuing to donate, so that he could help other families. It was too late for my cousin, but he was donating in her name.
Milton: Tell me more about the event.
O’Keefe: Some events go 24 hours; our event goes 12. It goes from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. That signifies the sun setting and rising. The motto is, “Cancer never sleeps, so for one night, neither do we.” Relay is really about a community coming together to finish the fight. For that one night, I know it doesn’t come close, but we try to put ourselves in a cancer survivor’s shoes and we don’t sleep that night. …Some people walk all night long. One really memorable night, about three years ago, there was a man who never stopped walking. He was actually running a lot of it, too. I remember in the morning, right at closing ceremony, he was still walking. I don’t think anyone even knew who he was. But when he was making his last lap, people were lined up hugging him, giving him high-fives, crying. His legs were cramping, we were getting him water. It was something he didn’t have to do, but he said he did it because his loved one couldn’t do it. He said that he did it for her. It was incredibly moving.
Milton: Is it too late to register?
O’Keefe: No, you can sign up the day of the event. …We want people and the community there. You don’t have to be registered to walk on the track. We just want to show our cancer survivors and their caregivers that their community is behind them and there for them, whether it’s their journey or a loved one’s journey. …Walkers and wheelchairs are allowed on the track. We have a survivor’s lap, which is a very emotional and significant lap. A lot of the survivors want to make the lap on their own. We do have golf carts to help them along. We want to make sure that they cross that finish line.
Milton: Do you have any inspiring stories?
O’Keefe: The story that sticks out to me is a girl I was working with while I was in college. She was a waitress, my age, and she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It made it really real. Even though I had lost friends and family before that point, having someone your own age was really significant. It made me realize that this could happen to me. I remember giving her the number to ACS … and I remember that she called me after she visited and was crying. She said thank you and that they made her feel special. They let her try on wigs and get a makeover. She was amazed at the resources they provide for her mom. I just remember getting off the phone with her, she was crying, I was crying. I can’t even remember exactly what she said to me, but I just remember her being extremely happy during a time when she was so upset. That made me realize that it’s worth the fight, that we’re really helping.
That what we do benefits not only the cancer patients, but also their families, too. …Sometimes, I may be out at places like Target, and I get a thank you for what I do. It’s not a thank you to me, but for the entire community.
Milton: Does the event always take place at a school?
O’Keefe: Our focus has changed more to infiltrating the local schools, middle schools and elementary schools. By teaching them to put on sunscreen, to cover up when you go outside, to exercise, eat healthy, avoid tobacco. …We don’t want to show them the repercussions; we want to show them how to live a healthy lifestyle, the preventative aspect of it all. That’s why we like hosting the event at schools.
Milton: Will there be food at the event?
O’Keefe: Yes, and most of the food is free. There will be a midnight pizza party, an ice cream social at 2 a.m., doughnuts at 4 a.m., and Fay’s grilled sandwiches and kebabs from 4 p.m. until 9 p.m. Fay’s will have food available for purchase, and they will donate a portion of it back to the Relay. There’s always so much food.
Milton: Tell me about the luminaria ceremony.
O’Keefe: Luminaria usually starts around 9 p.m. We try to wait until it’s completely dark, and we turn off the track lights. That way, the only thing that lights up the track is each luminaria bag. …We use glow sticks for fire-safety precautions. Last year, we had just under 500 luminaria bags, and it was incredible to see the track illuminated. Each year, we do the reading of the names; we read the names of the bags that are in honor of cancer survivors and then the ones in memory of those who have passed. We don’t specify, we just read all the names on all the bags. We stop selling the bags, which cost $10 a bag, around 8:30 p.m., so that we have every name on a sheet of paper. We usually have two prominent figures from the community reading the names. This year, we have Judge William Brady and Sarah Gallagher Chami. …We started this a couple of years ago, and we have a silent lap, or an in-remembrance lap. We ask those whose loved ones are no longer with us to pick up their bags. We play a meaningful song, and they take a lap with their bag, they take a lap with their loved one. That lap is the most emotional. It’s probably the hardest lap for everyone. It’s a bittersweet moment for the caregivers, because they are able to remember and think of their loved one, but at the same time, it signifies that they are no longer with us.
Milton: Why do you think people come each year?
O’Keefe: I think that what draws them to Relay for Life is that it is such a tight-knit, close community. It’s a place for them to come and heal, to talk to people who have been in their shoes. They find people who are a shoulder to lean on. One person being diagnosed with cancer affects so many people. It affects the cancer patient the most, but it also affects the caregivers. …Relay allows everyone a chance to vent, to share stories, to celebrate together. When the survivors cross that line together, you look over and think that these people were best friends for years. They have that sense of camaraderie, that they have done this together, battled together, and even won this together. I think that it’s that sense of togetherness that brings them out each and every year. Some people say that the event feels like their home, that we are their family. Honestly, I feel the same way.
Milton: What is cancer? How would you define it?
O’Keefe: I never had somebody ask me that. My own definition is that it is definitely a bump in the road. They’re all different, whether it’s a pothole or a speed bump. It brings you to a halt. You’re always caught off-guard and you never know that it’s coming. It’s unexpected and you don’t know how to deal with it. Sometimes you can drive over a pothole and after a little bit of correction, you’re fine and you’re back on the road. To me, that signifies a Stage 1 diagnosis, where you go in for treatment and you’ve caught it early. But then there’s times where you hit a pothole and you get a flat tire. You can’t move forward. To me, that signifies a Stage 4 diagnosis, where you have a long road ahead. You can’t just pop a new tire back on in a snap of a finger and cruise back on the road. It’s just that unexpected. You never know when it’s coming or who it’s going to touch. Like a pothole in the road is how I would describe it. It just pops up. You don’t know how to deal with it until you get out of that car and you see what happened. …I’ve never really used that analogy before, but it really makes sense.
Milton: In that scenario, what would be the American Cancer Society?
O’Keefe: I would say that they would probably be the towing company. They don’t come to fix you right there, they will get you to where you need to be. I wish that ACS had the capability to fix you, but they will give you every resource possible. They will get you where you need to be and help you see what you need to see. Some towing services will get you a drink while you are waiting, and I feel that ACS is able to help with that. They offer you wigs and support groups while you’re going through chemo. They have their 24/7 hotline that has professionally trained individuals that know how to help. The repair shop is probably the doctor that will fix you.
Milton: What would you say to people who have never participated in Relay for Life but are interested?
O’Keefe: Although registration is encouraged, it is not required. This is a community event that is free to everyone. It would be so nice to have as many people there as possible to cheer the survivors around the track to help remember the people we’ve lost. Having the community come out and support us would mean the world to each and every one of us. We relay all year long, and a lot of people think that it’s just in June. Our season goes until Aug. 31. We are constantly planning, and not just the event. It’s not just a June, a spring thing. We are continually fighting and trying to be a part of the community. The most important thing to stress is to let everyone know that they should come out. It’s not a race, it’s a community coming together to finish the fight.