GEORGETOWN — Every year that Georgetown resident Rick Smith, 69, attends the Relay for Life, he feels thankful that he has made it another year. On Friday, he participated in the annual survivor walk as a 30-year survivor of thyroid cancer.
"I always know that my family is going to be there when I finish that lap," he said. "It's always great to hug them and to see their smiling faces."
Smith was the honorary survivor at this year's Floyd County Relay for Life, which took place Friday at Highland Hills Middle School. The annual event raises funds for the American Cancer Society to support cancer research and other resources for those facing cancer.
The event went from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., and it featured a variety of events to honor cancer survivors and those lost to the disease, including a survivor walk and a "Luminaria" ceremony to recognize the names of those have fought cancer.
After Smith was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1989, he had a surgery that altered his voice, and about a month later, he was given a huge dose of radioactive iodine to treat the cancer, which led the hospital to clear most of an entire floor.
All of his procedures were successful, and he has been able to lead an active life since then. He finished his career as a high school history teacher, and he even ran 15 marathons following his experience with cancer, including the Boston Marathon.
Smith said he is happy to see how many more resources have become available for cancer patients through organizations like the American Cancer Society, including transportation to help people get to their doctor's appointments and additional information about the disease.
He said he appreciates the community he has met through Relay for Life.
"The old saying is, we're all in the same boat, whether we're cancer survivors or caregivers," Smith said. "Everyone has gone through the process, and oftentimes it involves surgery to take out cancer, and sometimes it's radiation ... Caregivers have gone through many of the same trials and tribulations dealing with their loved ones."
Beth Rodewig, chairperson for the Floyd County Relay for Life, first became involved with the organization after her sister started the event in Floyd County more than 20 years ago. Only a few years later, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1999.
She went through a hysterectomy, but she was diagnosed with endemetrial cancer in 2003. She went through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, including an experimental surgical procedure at the University of Louisville hospital.
For the past 15 years, Rodewig has faced what she calls "chemo cleanup." While her cancer is no longer active, the chemotherapy led to diabetes, and she has also faced liver failure and five years with a blood virus. She still requires plenty of medications to continue functioning properly, she said, and she still attends plenty of doctor's appointments.
Although it's been a tough journey, she's still here, she said. She tends to be particularly emotional about her battle with cancer during Relay for Life, and she said she found a network of support through the event, including "cancer buddies" who told her what to expect during her cancer treatment.
"I tell everyone that it is the absolute best support system, bar none, because everybody here's been there, in one capacity or another," she said.
New Albany resident Mary Kost, Floyd County Relay for Life committee member, knows just how important it is to support cancer research.
Her mother-in-law, Wilma Kost, was in a clinical trial to treat her leiomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer, about 21 years ago, and although it was not successful for her, the same procedure was later used to treat Rodewig's endemetrial cancer. Through Relay for Life, Kost and Rodewig started talking, and they learned about the connection.
Kost is inspired to know that research about one type of cancer can also apply to other types, saying "that's how we save lives." She said it is validating to know that her mother played a part in research that helped Rodewig.
"What my mother-in-law did for a clinical trial was a standard of care for Beth, and Beth is here today," she said. "She owns a business. She's a wife, a daughter, a mom, a grandma. She employs people, she is feeding money into our economy, and that's what the research does."
Rodewig emphasized the importance of Relay for Life in both providing funds for the American Cancer Society and bringing awareness to the community about the issue of cancer. In addition to organizing the big event, she said committee members work year round to fundraise and present other events for cancer survivors.
She said the Floyd County Relay for Life has already exceeded its $70,000 fundraising goal—at the beginning of Friday's event, they were at $78,000. A $25,000 donation from Chosen Healthcare recently gave the organization a significant boost.
Jeffersonville resident Rick Conrad participated in the survivor walk Friday with his wife, Shelly Conrad. He is currently facing carcinoid cancer and neuroendocrine tumors. He was first diagnosed with cancer 15 years ago, and the disease has reoccured throughout the years.
They also came with their two kids, ages 5 and 12. He said it meant the world for him to be there with his family, including Shelly, who is his caregiver. He also appreciates the community of support at Relay for Life.
"We try to raise funds throughout the year, and my wife actually used to work for the oncologist that I see," he said. "It's like everyone's a big family at cancer center and here. We meet new people every year, and we show our support and raise awareness."