By Ed Runyan
The balmy weather and good music made it easy to get into a celebratory mood Friday night as the 20th annual Boardman Relay for Life got underway at the Boardman High School football stadium.
Danielle Procopio, event chairperson, fired up the large crowd with the impressive amount of money the event raised last year — $257,000, making it the second-largest Relay in Ohio.
“We want you to hope big ... to live in a cancer-free world,” she said just before the survivor’s lap began, featuring about 300 local cancer survivors.
Precopio reminded the crowd that the relay will last 24 hours — until 6 p.m. today — “because cancer never sleeps,” and that one in three men and one of every two women will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime.
But Carol McGraw of Boardman reminded everyone just how tough the battle can be.
She recounted how she was blindsided by cancer in 1996 at age 33 with a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
She was raising a 12-year-old son, had just moved to the area six months earlier, had no family nearby and found out she had a tumor the size of an orange in her chest.
“After my head stopped spinning, I thought long and hard, made some phone calls and knew what I had to do,” she said.
“No war was ever won sitting on a pity pot while trying to shoot the enemy. I knew I had to be strong. I knew I had to stand up, remain steady and take dead aim at the target. My target — cancer — was not going to win.”
She had surgery and underwent six months of chemotherapy every day. One year after diagnosis, she had to have more surgery.
“This surgery was a rough one. In order to get where they needed to be, it involved an incision from armpit to armpit, collapsing both lungs and a few nights in ICU,” she said.
“At this point I was ready to give up. But what made me push on was hearing my 12-year-old son praying to God the night before my surgery to not take his mom away. ‘We still have too much to do together,’ I heard him say. That was my inspiration.”
McGraw said that when she first had cancer, people frequently focused on what a cancer patient loses — hair, taste buds, sensation in some areas, a vocal cord. But she also gained so much.
“I gained a courage I never knew I had. I gained closer, deeper relationships with people I never thought possible. I gained a sense of purpose I’d never felt before, and I gained more appreciation for life,” she said.
Seventeen years later and in full remission, McGraw said she has been told several times she’s been an inspiration to others with the disease.
“All of you are inspirations to your fellow survivors, your caregivers, your family and friends,” she said.
Jan Dellagnena, 61, of Poland told a similar story of determination — when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, followed by a divorce, death of her father and death of her dog all in the same year, and then two more bouts with cancer in the following 10 years.
She had both breasts removed as a result of separate breast cancers and this year was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Every other week, she receives eight hours of chemotherapy and associated procedures, but she still maintains her full-time status at work by putting in extra hours to make up for the time she has to be away for treatment.
“I’m pretty independent. All I have are my friends and a couple cousins. I’m the only one who stayed here in Youngstown. The other ones left,” she said.
“There are days when I’m down, but the others say, ‘Jan, you’re an inspiration.’ I just do what I have to do, and that’s it.”