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Relay for Life brings community together to support cancer research

Members of the audience use the light on there phones during the Luminaria Ceremony in dedication to those battling cancer, Mar. 25 in the Indoor Athletic Center. Josh Barnhart | Staff Photographer

Livonia sophomore Kevin Grezlik attends Relay for Life because he is a four-year cancer survivor.

March 25 is the four-year anniversary of his diagnosis. Grezlik calls himself one of the "lucky ones."

During his freshman year of high school, Grezlik was diagnosed with Stage 1 non-Hodgkin's Burkitt lymphoma. He underwent two rounds of chemotherapy treatment. Almost two months after the diagnosis, he was declared cancer-free.

“There are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me,” Grezlik said, “Ultimately, I relay in order to support those who have it worse off than me. I’m a survivor to ensure that there are other survivors.”

Colleges Against Cancer hosted Central Michigan University's Relay for Life in the Indoor Athletic Complex. Proceeds from the event went toward the American Cancer Society research.

Organizers set a goal to raise $70,000. No final amount was announced at the event's conclusion. Alyssa Hayward, president of CMU’s Colleges Against Cancer, told Central Michigan Life Sunday that the event raised $46,647. She said with other events taking place in Mount Pleasant, it lowered attendance. Hayward said money can still be raised until August.

For 12 hours on Saturday, Jack Skoog Indoor Track transformed into a place to remember lives lost to cancer, embrace those who continue to fight and honor survivors who won their battle.

Representatives from Greek Life and campus organizations were present at tables throughout the day. Participants played games, listened to music and enjoyed food and drink on a donation-based process to raise money for each Relay team.

Head football coach John Bonamego and his wife Paulette were among those in attendance. Bonamego was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in June 2015, three months before the start of his first season coaching CMU football. He announced he was cancer-free in November 2015.

More than a year after finding out he was cancer free, Bonamego said he has a different outlook on life because of his cancer battle.

“The three words you never want to hear are ‘You have cancer.’” Bonamego said. “For anyone that knows or is close to anyone that has had to fight through that, for us, it’s something very personal. What everyone is working for here is to help fight this so that anybody who has to hear those words can say the other three words, which are ‘I beat cancer.’”

Grace Kozak works for the American Cancer Society and has worked closely with planning this event. Kozak also relays for her husband's sister and mother, who have Lynch Syndrome, and for the support Relay for Life gives them.

"Through advances of the American Cancer Society, it has become much more manageable for his family," Kozak said. "There are treatments available that weren’t even available (five) years ago.

“Relay is this really great, communal experience. Doing it can be really healing for people especially through our Luminaria Ceremony and our opportunities to connect with other survivors.”

Hayward said the event was a success. Her group raised about $4,000, she said.

“It always seems impossible,” Hayward said. “It always seems like we’re never going to finish everything in time. But, at the end of the day when we find out how much we’ve raised, it’s always worth it.”

Later in the night the Asia Project performed. The performance was a special one considering Asia Samson himself battled cancer and survived.

Emily Warriner, a Jackson sophomore and Central Harmony A Capella member, said she is grateful for the opportunity to perform at this year’s event, which was her first time participating.

“It was really moving. Since I had never been before, it was so much more than I expected,” Warriner said. “Everybody’s here for this cause and everybody’s here to support each other. It’s great.”

At 10 p.m. the lights turned off and everyone gathered for the Luminaria walk. Walkers were asked to turn their flashlights on as they walked together in a lap of silence for all the people that have passed away from cancer. White paper bags that were decorated for the people that have either survived or have been lost to cancer were placed around the track.

Mariah Harris, a Manistee senior, serves as Survivorship Chair. Harris said she relays for her dad, who is twice a survivor of skin cancer, and her grandfather, who passed after his battle.

“Relay, to me, means finding a cure for all the cancers," Harris said.

As the Survivorship Chair, Harris organizes the Survivor Luncheon and ensures that goodie bags are available afterward to thank the survivors for coming.

“The biggest impact was last year which was my first time with my dad here,” Harris said, “Everybody’s emotion and support just touches your heart.”

Grand Rapids resident Linda Kaminski relayed with her daughter by her side and a survivor sash around her waist. She said she will make Relay for Life an annual event.

“It’s amazing to see all the people that show their love for people they don’t know, people they know, and their loved ones,” Kaminski said.

News Editor Evan Sasiela contributed to this article.