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Helping find a cure for cancer? Thumbs up to THAT

Connie Vandermay/FOCUS Jim Holper gave a 'thumbs up' as he walked the survivor's lap at Friday night's Relay for Life in Perham.

Celebrating life one small victory at a time is essential in the battle against cancer. Celebrating those victories becomes even more jubilant when surrounded by hundreds of supportive community members.

Signs of the Perham community coming together to fight cancer have been in the air all year. The town is the host of many fundraisers and benefits that receive considerable support all year long.

But Friday's Relay for Life event, held at the Perham track, was undoubtedly the year's biggest sign of that support. A sizable crowd gathered that hot and humid night to celebrate life, remember lives lost, fight back and renew hope.

Whatever their individual reasons for being there, everyone's goal was the same: to raise money for cancer research that may someday lead to a cure.

For many, the relay was a time to share good news. Chasity and Rick Johnson, for example, said surgery to remove the desmoid tumor from the neck of their daughter, Paige Johnson, was scheduled for July 27 - the same day as Paige's ninth birthday.

The chemotherapy treatments Paige has undergone since February have shrunk the tumor enough to make surgery a possibility far sooner than the family expected.

"I can't think of a better birthday present than for her to be cancer free," Chasity said.

Ramelle Nelson, honorary co-chair of this year's Relay for Life, said that if you have to battle cancer, Perham is the best kind of place to do it because of the high level of support the town gives. As evidenced by the number of teams, sponsors and luminaries at the track Friday, as well as all the purple decorations that were seen around town throughout the week, the community is behind those touched by cancer 100 percent of the way.

This year's relay had 23 teams walking throughout the night, on a track lit with close to 5,000 luminaries honoring and remembering loved ones who have fought cancer.

The event raised an estimated $70,000, and donations were still being counted at press time.

Seventy-one cancer survivors took the first lap around the track, pushed on with much cheering, clapping and picture-taking. Among them were some who had survived cancer multiple times, some brand new survivors, long time survivors and even a few who continue on the road to recovery, with high hopes they will be in remission soon.

Little Paige Johnson, for example, who is still fighting, hoping to be cancer free within the month.

Or Perham City Councilor Harriet Mattfeld, a four-time cancer survivor.

Or the dad and his two daughters, Jack Schmidt, Lisa Dahl and Sandy Erickson, who walked hand-in-hand down the track in celebration of survival. All three were diagnosed with cancer within a year of each other, battled it together, and overcame it.

Though most of the cancer survivors celebrate years of remission in the single digits, one Perham resident, Lorly Schik, has had 52 birthdays since she was cancer free - the most of any survivors in town. Lora Honer, who had cancer as a child, this year celebrated 22 years of being cancer free.

And while the survivors were the honored guests at the event, the thousands of luminaries lining the track served as a reminder of the many lives lost.

Stephan Doll and his daughter, Stefanie Hurt, began their battle with cancer side-by-side at the beginning of last year; but on Friday, only Hurt was there to walk the survivor's lap, her fists pumping up in the air. Her father's cancer took his life in February, and he was remembered with luminaries and the release of a dove later in the ceremony.

For the second year, 120 white doves were released during the relay. As they quickly disappeared into the horizon, one little boy questioned out load, "I wonder how they are going to catch them?" But the doves aren't meant to be caught. Their release signifies a sense of freedom from the terrifying and trapped feeling that those battling cancer often feel.

According to the American Cancer Society's website,, half of all men in the United States are at risk of developing cancer sometime in their lives. For women, it's closer to 33 percent. These statistics hit closer to home when it's a neighbor, friend, brother, sister, mother, father or spouse.

In a speech before the luminaries were lit, Nelson reminded everyone to, "be aware of your bodies." She said every lump, dimple or colored mark that is new should be checked out.

Nelson isn't shy about telling people to watch for signs of cancer. Because of her warnings, five of her friends have found spots and lumps on their bodies and had them examined in the last year. Four of those five turned out to be cancerous or precancerous.

Nelson's fellow honorary co-chairperson, Marky Van de Streeke, also gave a speech about her own fight.

"I thought I was a real strong person until I found out I wasn't," she said. The community, local doctors and nurses and friends offered the support she needed to get through it all.

Van de Streeke was pushed around the track in her wheelchair, leading the way in lighting the luminaries as the St. Paul's Lutheran Bell Choir played.

Chair of the local Relay for Life, Lisa Peterson, said attendance was up, luminary counts were up and public awareness was up. Thus, she counted the event as a success.

The group will continue to accept donations through the month of August at United Community Bank.

*Check out the Relay for Life photo gallery for many more pictures of the event