Hundreds focus on cancer fight at Relay for Life of Penn State

Teams walk the track during the Penn State’s Relay for Life on Saturday at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Teams walk the track during the Penn State’s Relay for Life on Saturday at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. CDT photo

Joan Esgro is a three-time cancer survivor.

On Saturday, at the 10th annual Relay for Life of Penn State at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, she was one of dozens who received a medallion and released a balloon into the air to signify they have been cancer free.

The event is Penn State student-run and the largest Relay for Life event in Centre County, said freshman Alyssa Gilley, who is on the recruitment and involvement committee.

About 1,725 participants on 130 teams planned to spend 24 hours walking around the baseball field Saturday and Sunday for the cause.

It’s part of a larger nationwide initiative to raise money and awareness for the American Cancer Society.

The goal this year is to raise $130,000. By Saturday afternoon, it already exceeded $92,000, Gilley said.

“Cancer doesn’t sleep, and this is our way of celebrating the survivors, honoring those in the fight and remembering those who have passed away from cancer,” Gilley said.

Gilley said she became involved in the event last year as a way to honor her family members who have suffered from cancer.

But it didn’t stop there. In the past year, Gilley said, she had two scares with skin cancer. She continues to be tested because it runs in her family.

“It’s unfortunate. Nearly every person in my family had some kind of cancer, but you look at the positive in it,” she said. “I look at my great-grandfather as a role model because of his strength, determination and fight.”

He lived with colorectal cancer for six years before he passed away, Gilley said.

“They’re all so resilient in the fight against it and you can really take away something good from it,” Gilley said.

Esgro, a Penn State alumna from just north of Scranton, said her cancer diagnosis was both the worst and best part of her life.

“It’s scary, but it makes you appreciate every day; it gives you a new perspective on life,” she said. “It’s amazing what a positive attitude can do. You learn that there is hope, to stay positive during it all and find your peace to get through it. You learn to control what you can like diet, sleep habits and making that time to stay positive.”

At age 49 in 2000, she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I used to think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m almost 50,’ but now I beat something that used to be known as a death sentence and now almost 63 thinking, ‘I’m blessed for this day,’ ” Esgro said. “There is a fear tied to death in everyone. When you face that fear, it’s no longer a fear anymore.”

This year, Jasmyn Franklin, a Penn State senior, said that she and her National Society of Minorities in Hospitality team adopted fellow Penn State student Brandi Weaver-Gates, 21, who was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia on March 27, 2013.

Clad in the leukemia awareness color of orange, she said she became cancer-free in October, but got news late last year that 5 percent of the cancer cells are back.

Going for testing regularly in Pittsburgh, she hopes to get better news by later this spring.

“When you’re a part of something like Relay for Life, it shows you you’re not along,” Weaver-Gates said. “When I was first diagnosed, I kept it to myself for a while; I didn’t know how to tell my family and even though they were there through it all, it still feels like you battling it alone, because they don’t understand.”

Bill Moore, of State College, wrangled up a team of 17 family members and friends last year after he found out he was cancer-free. The group walked lap after lap around the baseball field Saturday in the wind to advocate for the society.

So far, his team, called “The Life Walkers,” raised about $2,200.

“I’m a rookie to Relay, but it’s fun and it’s for something good and there is a special camaraderie with others,” Moore said.