As a 55-year survivor of cancer, Sandy Miller Brusco is a face of hope for local families touched by the disease.
Her battle with cancer started at age 26, when doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer.
“I went into a shell the weekend (I was diagnosed) because … I was sure I was going to die,” Brusco said. “I told my husband, ‘You’re going to have to find another mom for our kids.’ ”
But shortly after Brusco realized she wasn’t going to give in to cancer that easily. She decided to get surgery and continue to fight the disease, she said.
“I had a family, so I made up my mind that I had to live. … And here I am 55 years later,” said Brusco, 81, of Kelso.
On Saturday, Brusco helped kick off the 31st annual Cowlitz Relay for Life by lighting the ceremonial torch, which burns for the full duration of the 24-hour event. Then she joined more than 50 other cancer survivors and caretakers in a “victory lap” around the Joe Stewart Track at Kelso High School.
“I’ve got to show people there’s hope, that you can walk on (after cancer),” Brusco said.
Relay for Life is part of a national fundraiser that supports the American Cancer Society and, in turn, cancer research. The event lasts a full day to symbolize how cancer never sleeps, said Dennis Bird, event chairman.
During the event, individuals and teams walk or run laps around the high school track. Each team is asked to have at least one member on the track at all times.
Teams also run vendor and activity booths that encircle the track to fund-raise during the event. Groups can also collect donations in advance of the relay.
More than 200 people and 29 teams signed up for the relay this year, though other participants attended the day of. Bird said the event aims to raise $108,000, or 10% more than last year’s goal. According to the online fundraiser tracking system, the Cowlitz relay has already raised $67,000.
The online donation platform remains open throughout August at relayforlife.org/cowlitz.
The relay focuses on celebrating cancer patients, survivors and caregivers; remembering those who died of cancer; and fighting back against the disease by raising money for research and sharing stories of hope.
“It’s also like building a more extensive family (of support),” said Kaylee Reynolds, 27, of Longview.
Reynolds said she’s been participating in the relay “since I was a little kid, for as long as I can remember.” But this year the event took on a new meaning for her.
“This year is a little tougher because I lost my dad (to cancer) on June 20. … When I was younger I didn’t really understand the relay, but this year it really hits home,” she said.
Her father, Terry Lee Reynolds, was diagnosed with lung cancer a handful of years ago, and doctors gave him the “all clear” in December, Reynolds said. But in February he was diagnosed again, this time with brain and abdomen cancers.
Kaylee Reynolds, who served as a caregiver to her father, said he was a “fighter through the end.” She reflected on him fondly after finishing her first lap on the track shortly after 10:30 a.m.
“He really loved his kids. He talked about us to everyone he met,” said Reynolds, who has eight siblings. “When he got the diagnosis, the only thing he was really worried about was us kids.”
His children will honor his memory in the relay’s Luminaria ceremony, where lanterns are lit to represent every life touched by cancer, whether a survivor, a supporter or someone killed by the disease.
Families design the lanterns for their lost loved ones.
“My dad was a long haul driver, and he was known for bringing home coffee cups full of flowers to plant at our house. … We incorporated that into the (lantern) bag,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds met Brusco, the 55-year cancer survivor, Saturday morning as they walked in the victory lap. The two women connected over their stories, sharing both laughter and tears as they talked.
Reynolds said one of the big takeaways from their conversation — and the event as a whole — was to “continue to be strong.”
“You don’t have to be scared (of cancer),” she said. “There’s hope, and we can fight.”