ENID, Oklahoma — Several dozen cancer survivors once again released purple and white balloons into Enid’s skies on Friday night before starting their rounds around downtown Enid.
Participants of Garfield County’s 24th Relay for Life continued to circle the courthouse lawn all evening, passing paper bags decorated for lost loved ones—all in memory of cancer patients who are constantly undergoing a marathon of treatments and side effects in their battle against the disease.
The annual Relay for Life walking event, which raises money for cancer research and awareness, returned to Enid after taking a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cathy Howard took several rounds for her sister, who died of cancer just over a month before this year’s Relay, her fourth diagnosis of the disease. The two had participated in Garfield County’s Relay together since 2018.
Howard’s sister, Nora Sturgeon, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. She was diagnosed with lung cancer twice, first in 2017 and then again in 2020. More tests and biopsies from December 2020 to January this year detected pancreatic cancer this time.
“(Her doctor) always talked about how tough she was,” Howard said, but that treatment was her breaking point this time.
In February, Sturgeon was also diagnosed with COVID, and although she recovered, Howard said the long-term effects of the disease on her sister’s body were not helping to treat cancer.
Sturgeon, 65, died on April 30, donating her body for scientific research, and Howard said their family held a celebration of life about two weeks later.
Howard and her team, Cowgirls kick against cancer, had raised $4,000 in donations by Friday, the third-highest amount and four times their posted team goal — $1,000 of which was raised by Sturgeon, until she was too ill to keep asking companies for donations.
Howard said it was difficult to do the event without her sister for the first time, but that she would continue to do it for years to come.
“We certainly miss her. This was her deal,” she said of relay.
More than $3,000 was raised from the sale of donated chrysanthemums, Howard said at the group’s table on the courthouse lawn. She and her teammates sold cookies, wristbands and bandanas, all on the table near a framed photo of her sister.
Although fewer teams participated in the relay event this year than in non-COVID times, the nine groups collectively raised about $20,000 on Friday, said Cece Sanchez, president of the Garfield County event.
Those funds will go toward the American Cancer Society’s efforts to research the long-delaying disease, as well as Garfield County’s Relay for Life group to help patients with meals, rides to chemotherapy appointments and other support services.
Nine items were donated to the event’s silent fundraiser, and Sanchez said other companies were donating in-kind items such as food and supplies.
Even without Relay’s annual gala being held this year, “I think people were just ready to give,” she said. “And maybe next year will be even better.”
Sanchez also helped lead this year’s top fundraising team, St. Mary’s Hipsters, made up mostly of employees from the oncology center of the Enid hospital which opened in 2017. There, Sanchez works in finance, authorizes treatments, and works with copay help for patients.
“You become attached to the patients. And you also want them to have a party,” she said.
The cancer center’s services director, Weslie White, said cancer treatment for kidney cells, breast or lymphomas is largely advanced. Ten to 12 years ago, a patient with metastatic disease — when cancer cells have developed outside the primary tumor site — might have six months to live.
White said oncologists, including the Cancer Centers, are now more likely to treat the disease as a chronic disease like diabetes, with improvements such as immunotherapies and biosimilars that are easier to tolerate.
“That just means people are living longer, healthier lives and not being sick from taking chemotherapy,” she said. “We haven’t beaten it yet, but we’re closer than in the past… and that’s exciting.”