Dennis Bird is not supposed to be alive. When he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, doctors gave Bird six months to live.
But four years later he’s still here, and Bird’s story has been a source of inspiration for the survivors, caregivers and volunteers who participated in Cowlitz County’s 30th annual Relay for Life fundraiser at Kelso High School on Saturday.
Bird told The Daily News that he got involved with the Cowlitz County Relay for Life, which raises money for the American Cancer Society, long before he was personally affected by cancer. He was a volunteer in 2007 and then later became the chairman for two years.
Then, in 2014, Bird started to have trouble swallowing. He told the 100 gathered survivors on Saturday about learning he had an incurable type of cancer and getting blood clots in his legs from the chemotherapy.
“Cancer thinks Dennis Bird cannot withstand this storm,” Bird told the audience as it began to rain. “What cancer doesn’t know is I am the storm. I am never ever going to be defeated.”
During the overnight event, which is sponsored by PeaceHealth, team members took turns walking or running around the track for 24 consecutive hours to represent the patients that never get a break from battling cancer.
Organizers estimate the event drew about 300 participants and raised approximately $60,000 as of Saturday morning. Event leader Brandon Russell said they have until the end of the month to reach their $100,000 goal.
The Cowlitz Relay for Life has raised more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society over its three decades here, according to event organizers.
“It’s still important to have this event after 30 years, because there are still cures that need to be found and patients that need help,” Russell said. “No matter how many new cures we find, resources and services are still needed.”
Bird said his diagnosis made the Relay for Life ceremony more “emotional.” He started chemotherapy treatments three days before attending Relay for Life for the first time as a survivor in 2014. During that event, Bird was the most recently diagnosed survivor. The event organizer introduced him and the longest survivor — a man who was diagnosed 20 years prior.
As part of this year’s kick-off ceremony, Bird stood next to Patti Mills, who was the most recently diagnosed person at the event.
“Four years ago, Dennis was given a 4 to 7 percent chance to be here today,” Russell told the crowd of survivors. “Today, Patti, Dennis is your face of hope.”
Seeing someone else beat the odds is an important way to avoid becoming dispirited, Bird said.
“We have that bond, so she’s able to be hopeful,” Bird said. “I’m not supposed to be here, but I am. I am people’s hope. I don’t want to be, I didn’t want this, but I am.”
Mills, of Toledo, said she learned in January that she needed open heart surgery. Three days later, on Valentine’s Day, she found out she had breast cancer.
“But I’m a tough little Italian mama,” Mills said with a laugh. “We need to fight to make sure that we beat it. Like Dennis said, we are the storm.”