The scourge of cancer is far too familiar for many, whether they have battled it themselves or witnessed a loved one do so. It can be one of life's most difficult, draining experiences. But with despair comes the opportunity for hope.
Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society's biggest fundraiser, with events spanning thousands of communities in 27 countries. Marcie Owens is the event chair for the Williamsburg relay.
"There's so many more survivors than there were in the past," she said. "All of this goes toward that."
Owens became involved with Relay for Life after her father's struggle with lung cancer in December 2014. He was diagnosed and died from the disease in less than 30 days. She was inspired to take action after seeing how Relay for Life brings the community together.
"The Williamsburg community is very strong," she said.
The relay tasks participating groups with walking around a path for a number of hours. Here, it's Warhill High School's track across 12 hours. Teams must have one member on the track at all times. The money raised goes toward research, support, prevention, education and more.
"So far this year, we have actually exceeded where we were last year," Owens said. As of May 9, Williamsburg relay teams have raised more than $142,000 of a $230,000 goal.
This year's relay features new activities like a survivor dinner in the school's cafeteria and a kid zone with face painting, bounce houses and more. The event's food trucks are donating 10 percent of the money they earn. The musical artists are performing free of charge.
Last year's relay saw 175 survivors and caregivers across 30 teams, and other individuals turned out to show their support as well. Previously, the relay was held from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. beginning on a Friday night; Owens hopes the shift to a noon start on Saturday will increase turnout.
Owens said her favorite aspect of the relay is the moment when doves are released into the air. With each dove, the name of someone affected by cancer is announced.
"It's the most beautiful thing you'll ever see," she said.
Hope despite horror
Brittney Cox purchased a dove to release for her dad. He was expected to live less than a year, yet he's still carrying on almost three years later.
Cox is also a survivor herself, in remission from cervical cancer for five years. She's also a caregiver, part of the Williamsburg relay's leadership team and a Jamestown High School graduate.
She joined Relay for Life three years ago. She recalled being nervous before her first event, but that hesitation quickly faded.
"You realize you're not alone," she said.
For this year's event, she named her team Randy's Angels, after her father. So far, the group of 18 has raised over $3,300.
"It's just been an amazing adventure," Cox said, and it's one about which her children are excited as well. Her daughter, a high school freshman, is getting her friends involved and raising awareness on that front.
Cox said she's encountered many people with misconceptions about Relay for Life. They think it's a race or a 5K, and that might limit their interest. But she said it's really about bringing people together and supporting those who have endured such harrowing struggles.
"You'll get goosebumps the moment you walk," she said.
Throughout the rest of the year, the group hosts meetings, bingo nights, other fundraisers and more. People interested in helping can volunteer for the American Cancer society year-round. Cancer is incessant, but humanity can be equally persistent.
"Just know that you're making a difference. Anyone can get cancer," Cox said. Cancer doesn't discriminate against gender, race, religion or age. But then again, compassion doesn't discriminate either. "You can make a difference regardless of who you are."
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.
Want to go?
Relay for Life of Williamsburg runs from noon to midnight on Saturday, May 20, at Warhill High School. Rain or shine. To sign up, donate and learn more, visit http://bit.ly/2powOn3 or call 757-591-8330.