Good reasons to Relay

Published 10:06 pm Saturday, April 12, 2014

Relay co-chairs Lauren McGhee, left, and Heather Howell are planning this year’s event.

Relay co-chairs Lauren McGhee, left, and Heather Howell are planning this year’s event.

The co-chairs for the Suffolk Relay For Life this year have many reasons to relay.

Like many people, they have known friends, co-workers and others who have battled the disease. But they both relay especially because they’ve lost parents to cancer, and now they have children of their own.

“I relayed at first because it was a healing experience, after losing my dad,” said Heather Howell. “But now it’s for my kids. Hopefully they’ll never know not only what it’s like to have cancer, but also to lose a parent to cancer.”

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Howell lost her father in 2006 after he battled first lung cancer and then pancreatic cancer. Later that year, a friend invited her to the Virginia Beach Relay For Life.

“I’d never even heard of it,” she said. “I think it was the luminaria ceremony that got me hooked.”

After that emotional remembrance ceremony that has become a favorite part of every Relay, Howell got involved in the Suffolk Relay after taking a hiatus when her children were small.

“Since that time, I’ve lost my grandfather and one aunt to cancer, and my dad’s two other sisters are in remission from different types of cancer,” Howell said. “I’m passionate about it.”

Howell’s co-chair, Lauren McGhee, first relayed in 2000 in Virginia Beach. She and some friends formed a team for a friend that was battling cancer.

But, unfortunately, that wasn’t her first experience with cancer. Her parents simultaneously battled cancer and lost their fight a month apart, when McGhee was only 13. Her father died of leukemia, and her mother died of breast cancer.

“They were 43 years old,” she said. “Really, they are the reason that I relay, because they’re no longer here to fight this battle.”

McGhee’s mother-in-law also died of cancer in 2010.

“That was really a difficult experience as well, because this time it involved my children and it involved someone they loved and cherished,” McGhee said.

She’s also had several close friends who have battled cancer and survived.

“I think you’d be really hard-pressed to find someone that has not been touched by cancer,” McGhee said.

The McGhee family has made Relay a family event. “My children have been on Relay teams with me and my husband,” she said. “It’s a family event for us, and we really want to finish the fight.”

There’s still time to form teams and raise money. Even those who don’t belong to a team can show up that night and participate.

“There’s so many activities, and all the teams that are there have fund-raising events throughout the night,” McGhee said. “It’s a great community event.”

Howell said being involved in Relay has taught her how much the American Cancer Society does for local people battling cancer.

“If people knew that, they’d have a vested interest,” she said. “We drive people to treatments. We do support groups for people here. We literally are funding sometimes life-saving services for people who live right here in Suffolk.”

The Suffolk Relay For Life will take place May 16-17 starting at 6 p.m. at Bennett’s Creek Park.

For more information, visit www.relayforlife.org/suffolkva.