Relay For Life nets $100,000

The annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life of South Kitsap began a little before 6 p.m. on Friday night, but the event was only the cumulation of a year’s work.

Three hours before opening ceremonies at the South Kitsap High School track, red-shirted volunteers manned the huge white canopies being erected on the field while others worked to fill balloons with helium to string in an arch over the track’s lap line.

Posters emphasizing sun protection were taped to the track’s fence, while individual relay teams set up camping tents, lawn chairs and stuck hand-written identification signs in the ground.

Port Orchard has been home to many past Relays. Local politicians have walked, businesses have sponsored and community members have given to the cancer cause.

Some volunteers even arrived sporting T-shirts from last year’s event and the years before. This year’s difference? The survivors.

Survivors came, some timid, some proud, registering, picking up their special azure-blue shirts.

The number of cancer survivors participating in this year’s event was staggering — more than 130 walked the track in 37 teams knowing that if they hadn’t fought as hard as they did, they wouldn’t be walking today.

They represent the defeat of cancer — brain, skin, breast, lung, liver, cervical, colon and leukemia, among others. The fact that they were at the Relay is enough, but it’s the banner stretched across the fence, seen by all as they cross the track’s finish line, that sums up what Relay For Life is all about: “There is no finish until we find a cure.”

This year’s “Survivor Chair” was Joanie Guggenmos, a seventh-year walker and captain of last year’s lead fundraising team “Two Legs, Two Thighs and a Breast.”

Relay For Life has become a way of life for Guggenmos. The 68-year-old retired executive secretary spent the past six months working to bring survivors from all over South Kitsap to the opening survivor lap.

Some survivors have nicknamed the Guggenmos their “leader,” and Friday afternoon, she was busy directing children to bathrooms and energetically handing out those bright blue shirts.

Guggenmos has twice survived breast cancer, first discovering a lump in her right breast in 1998 at the age of 63. She had the breast removed on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I remember still remember my first Relay, my first survivor lap,” Guggenmos said. “It was the Poulsbo Relay in 1998. I had gone through chemo and was just barely able to make it around the track. I cried the whole way around.”

At this year’s lap, emotions ran high and reluctance ran out.

“My neighbor Lori Wilkie, whose husband played with the bagpipers during the Luminaria Ceremony and also a breast cancer survivor, convinced our other neighbor Ann Newell, who is just undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, to join in the survivor lap with us,” Guggenmos said. “When we rounded the track, Ann’s friends had made big signs that were hanging on the fence saying how much they loved their Ann.”

Guggenmos is open and honest about her struggle with cancer and hopes her honesty helps those who may not be ready to talk about their fight seek out emotional support. She said she’s determined to help people in whatever capacity she can. Her message is one of optimism and prevention.

According to John Taylor, Community Development Manager for the American Cancer Society (ACS) and head of the staff of South Kitsap’s relay, it is Guggenmos’ tenacity that earned her spot on this year’s Relay For Life committee.

“Last year, her team raised the most money at the South Kitsap Relay,” Taylor said. “When we’re looking for committee staff, we look for successful team captains. She’s done a tremendous job. There are two secrets to a good relay — number of survivors and number of teams.”

Thirty-seven teams raised $100,000 this year, an all-time high.

“Two Legs, Two Thighs and a Breast” was again the top fundraiser, bringing in $10,800 for the ACS.

According to the ACS, Relay For Life started 20 years ago in Tacoma. The first Relay had one participant and raised $27,000. By the next year, there were 220 participants on 19 teams. Now the fundraiser is nationwide with more than 3,800 participating communities in the United States and nine other countries.

Last year, the fundraiser brought in $264 million and the ACS also celebrated reaching the cumulative $1 billion mark. The Northwest brought in over $9 million.

In addition to the survivor lap and Luminaria Ceremony, the year’s Relay featured the Port Orchard Police Bagpipers Band, a midnight movie screening and the Saturday concert, as well as various raffles and activities.

“My family has been very supportive,” Guggenmos said. “I’ve been married to my husband Duane for 46 years. Our son Steve from Renton, who shaved his head when I had to do chemo, closed the Relay on Saturday with his band ‘24 Hr. Diesel.’ Our older son Scott flew here from Houston to surprise us and play in the band. I was angry (when I was initially diagnosed). I was frightened. I then decided at least I have my life . It was more than a lot of people had,” Guggenmos said.

Guggenmos admits she’s still scared, but she often speaks of her remission, her family and those she loves, as well as her belief in the future of Relay For Life and all that it accomplishes.

“I will speak, raise money for research and be a mentor to those who will go through difficult times,” Guggenmos said. We will obviously not find a cure in my lifetime, but I shall do my best to do what I can. We all hope for a cure, but for today, it is enough to just have today. And I have today--I continue to live each day and love each moment. If I have helped in some small way, then I have done my job.”

Both Guggenmos and Taylor said they were pleased at how this year’s Relay turned out.

“The main goal of this year’s event was to get the community aware of the Relay,” Guggenmos said. “To get as many survivors walking that first lap. To raise more money than ever before. To have more teams involved. To find more corporate sponsors. And we accomplished all of this.”

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