By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — Men and women, ranging in age from their teens to their 60s, stopped to shake Patrick Spain’s hand.
Yesterday afternoon, Spain, a 33-year-old colon cancer survivor from North Andover, shared his survivor’s story with hundreds of people gathered at Nicholson Stadium to kick off the city’s fifth Relay for Life, the national fundraiser for cancer research.
Methuen’s relay, started by high school students who began the first planning nearly six years ago, quickly grew into a community event that attracted almost 1,000 people this year on more than 90 teams, according to local Relay organizers.
“When I see the high school and the grade school kids (involved), I’m absolutely blown away,” Spain told the participants just before the Relay began.
Indeed, residents of all ages walk the track for the 24-hour event and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Children ran under a sprinkler in the field behind the track to cool off, teenagers held their faces in front of a misting fan at the concession stand, young adults walked with their relatives and grandparents sat under tents to escape the sun as temperatures climbed into the lower 90s.
Scott Yim, one of the original student chairs of the Methuen Relay and a recent Harvard University graduate, said the event has become a tradition for the whole city.
“This is no longer our event, but everyone’s in Methuen,” he said.
Spain shared his difficulty dealing with colon cancer, a diagnosis that caught him off guard because he did not have a family history and ate a rather healthy diet. After chemotherapy and surgeries, he suffered complications and endured what could be embarrassing treatments. But the treatment and exams were more important, especially in the early diagnosis phase.
“I spoke with a woman who’s going to (get a colonoscopy) Monday because of my speech. She’d been putting it off for a year,” he said.
After the opening ceremony, Spain walked the ceremonial first lap with dozens of other survivors, all clad in purple t-shirts.
After the lap, an older man wearing a purple survivor’s t-shirt stopped beside Spain on the track, nodding silently for a moment before finding a few words of thanks and alluding to a loved one who did not make it.
“This network here can be really helpful to him, because you can see it’s so close to the surface,” Spain said.
Spain participated in his first Relay for Life about three weeks after he began his chemo treatment and suddenly found a new group of support from survivors of all ages, people who knew what was happening to him and had won their battles. They gave him tips to help him endure his treatments and showed him that survival is an option. Now he travels to Relay events around Massachusetts, and sometimes outside the state, to talk about his fight and to reach people with recent diagnoses.
“I want them to know there is something after cancer,” he said.
He used humor to help him deal with his battle, and after he recovered, joined a group called Stupid Cancer, which works with young adult cancer survivors by organizing events like marathons and mountain climbs.
Spain, a wildlife scientist and host of National Geographic’s “Beast Hunter,” is nearing three years since his diagnosis, a threshold that puts his cancer mortality rate on par with the rest of the population.
The Methuen/Greater Lawrence Relay For Life was started by Yim and Madison Aleksa, two members of the Methuen High senior Class of 2008. Both students had family members with cancer, Madison having lost her father to the disease when she was 13.
It is organized each year with three co-chairmen, who typically are high school seniors or juniors, and two high school faculty advisers. Abby Case, Jake Fabrizio and Laura Quinn were this year’s co-chairs, and Sarah Thompson and Jackie Rubino were the faculty advisers.
Case said the goal this year, $335,000, is lofty, but in keeping with the Relay’s 2013 motto: “Dream Big, Hope Big, Relay Bigger.”
Rubino said as of Saturday morning, the event had raised about $218,000, but she expected more donations through the event, which began at 2 p.m. yesterday and continues until 7 p.m. today.
In its first five years, the Methuen/Merrimack Valley Relay for Life has raised $1.22 million, not counting donations that came in yesterday and today. Donations raised by the Relay for Life goes to the American Cancer Society for cancer research.
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