Loss. Life. Healing. Hope.
The stories—about loss, about life, about healing, about hope—were everywhere at Rowan University’s ninth annual Relay for Life. Completely student-led, the all-night fundraiser included 12 straight hours—6 p.m. to 6 a.m.—of walking the track, fun games, music and activities.
Altogether, Relay for Life raised $45,000 for the American Cancer Society.
Tamu King-Lewis, the mother of Rowan freshman journalism major Kenyah King Ho-Sang, was two hours early for Relay, showing up promptly at 4 p.m.
Along with a dozen members of her family, including Kenyah, King-Lewis’ family stayed in Rowan’s Rec Center until 2 a.m. In doing so, the family honored her husband, Ronnie Lewis, who died of Stage 4 lung cancer just seven weeks earlier.
Together, the family walked, sang, danced, cried—and healed, just a bit—throughout the evening. They felt the support, the love, of the 1,035 Rowan students who stood beside them, she said.
King-Lewis’ son, Christian, 12, even joined Houshmand’s Heroes, helping students meet a Relay challenge set forth by Rowan President Ali Houshmand. With Christian’s help, the team raised $900 to fight cancer.
King-Lewis enjoyed a survivors’ dinner prepared by students, a special meal in which cancer survivors and their caregivers joined together in conversation and support.
“It takes a lot of heart, a lot of time to put this together,” King-Lewis said of Relay, which was dubbed “ReLei for Life” in honor of the event’s Hawaiian theme.
“The students performed a selfless act. It made me very grateful. It made me very proud.”
Relay co-chair Julia England enjoyed every delicious moment of Relay—right on down to a chocolate cream pie-eating contest that left her temporarily blinded by whipped cream.
She danced. She hula hooped. She laughed. Tears streaming down her face, at 5:48 a.m., she walked arm-in-arm with senior Relay co-chair Sami Musumeci on the final, emotional Relay lap. Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” blared over the speakers.
England spent the last two Relays in a wheelchair, the result of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, an extraordinarily painful nerve condition. But this year, after a full year of rehabilitation, England was able to walk—and even run—during Relay.
That had been her goal all along. Relay, working to end cancer, has been that important to her.
“I don’t think I’ll be even that emotional at graduation,” England said of her final walk. “Relay has been one of the best blessings for me. It has taught me about what it is to live. It’s been one of my most profound college experiences.”
Under the leadership of England and Musumeci, participation in Relay is at an all-time high. The Relay committee grew from six students to 50. The undergraduates, a fun, creative, committed, hard-working group, are poised to lead the event next year. They’re already brimming with ideas for themes and fun activities.
Freshman chemical engineering and Honors major Naquan McRae has lost family members and friends to cancer.
He walked all night at Relay. And, in what was part healing and heavy dose of old-fashioned, for-a-cause silliness, he donned a red and white striped dress—“a very short one,” he said—in the ever-popular 2 a.m. Miss Relay cross-dressing competition. Altogether, five male students donned crazy, gender-bending outfits, including coconut bras, to solicit donations to Relay.
In 20 minutes, McRae raised $140 from his fellow students, earning third place and a bronze medal that proudly poked out from beneath his Phi Kappa Psi fraternity t-shirt.
“That was…a bit different,” McRae said of the Miss Relay race, smiling broadly. “I even danced for some people.
“By keeping everyone in good spirits, I felt I was honoring the family members and friends I’ve lost. We cheered people up. We reminded them that something is being done to fight cancer.”
At 11:04 p.m., Kristen diNovi, assistant dean of Rowan’s College of Humanities & Social Sciences, told her story, a survivor’s story. diNovi was 32 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in her left breast. A few years later, she was diagnosed on the right side.
After surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and alternative medicine to strengthen her immune system, today, nine years after her first diagnosis, she is cancer free.
She urged students, who had gathered for the event’s emotional 11 p.m. luminaria ceremony to keep hoping—and fighting—for a cure.
“When we think of cancer, it’s common to think of the pain…and fear…of grief…of loss,” she told Relay participants.
“But there is also courage…and strength…and hope…and community. Most important, there is life. Ultimately, cancer didn’t teach me to fear death. It reminded me to embrace life.”