USD Relay for Life Raises Awareness, Hope in Fight Against Cancer

Cancer. Just seeing the word, writing the word, hearing it or thinking about it creates an emotional response. Each year this stubborn disease claims thousands of lives and wreaks havoc on thousands more who battle it. For those who survive, they remain vigilant to prevent its return.

USD Relay for Life 2017

The numbers are minute for those who have not been affected by cancer, either as a patient or as a supportive family member or friend of a person close to them. And this is why when University of San Diego students, staff, faculty and administrators state why they "Relay," it indicates they’re fully invested in being part of USD's annual spring Relay for Life event.

"This is the only student-led, student-developed, student-run event on campus that has become a Torero Tradition," says Irene Bubnack, an executive assistant in the USD Residential Life office who has taken part in USD's Relay for Life event since its inception in 2009 and serves in an advisor role.

Emma Doolittle, a graduating senior and a four-year member of USD's Colleges Against Cancer student organization, was the student director of this year's Relay for Life April 7-8 at USD's Valley Field. More than $15,000 was raised by teams comprised of student organizations, clubs and a faculty/staff team, toward cancer research and the event provides a space to build community around a very difficult topic.

"It's an opportunity for everybody, from all walks of life at this university, to come to one place for a set amount of time and talk about it," Doolittle says. "Cancer is hard to talk about, but I think that's the power of Relay for Life. We all have stories and experiences. By talking about them, this helps us grow as a community."

Doolittle made a concerted effort to raise the event's profile last year when she spoke directly to USD President James Harris to make Relay for Life a truly campus-connecting event. Doolittle, at Harris' insistence, gave a presentation at a board meeting and campus offices donated services, equipment and the location so the event’s operating expenses were minimal and fundraising and building a stronger USD were priorities.

"She shared with them that it's not just about cancer, it's about community," Bubnack said of Doolittle. "It's about creating that vulnerability that allows us to really connect. I think that's what really makes a Torero."

The USD Relay for Life event is a dedicated experience. Fundraising teams are present for 18 straight hours and they walk laps, doing so in remembrance of loved ones lost to cancer, those fighting it now and those who've survived. The event begins with a Survivors Lap, followed by a Caretakers' lap and then laps are done throughout the afternoon, night, overnight and morning. In between laps, student groups often have activities such as Bubble Soccer, Minute-to-Win-It games, human foosball and volleyball and more to add some light-hearted camaraderie to the event.

A special evening activity, the Luminaria ceremony, also takes place and serves as a meaningful opportunity for students to share how cancer has touched their life.

One current USD student, Abby, spoke at this year's ceremony about her grandparents' respective battles with cancer. While offering touching stories of spending time in the Iowa garden of her Grandma Betsy or the tropical rainforest-like backyard when visiting her Grandma Nancy and “Papa T” in Florida, she also shared stories of Betsy and Papa T's battle with cancer.

Grandma Betsy battled breast cancer off and on for more than 40 years before she passed away in 2016. Papa T smoked for many years and though he did quit, was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer. Papa T, though, through extensive treatments, emerged cancer-free and is scheduled to attend his granddaughter’s USD graduation ceremony in May.

Talking about a personal family struggle openly to the audience seemed frightening, Abby admitted. "Some may be surprised I'm on stage sharing my story, but my friends and sorority sisters may not have known the impact that cancer has had on my family. Honestly, I've not talked much at all about my journey with cancer. Some talk about it, some don't. When I was first asked to speak, I was extremely hesitant, I was afraid and I wasn't ready to be vulnerable. But almost all of us are impacted by (cancer) and we all Relay to change that."

Relay for Life events aren't new. It's not uncommon for students to say that their first exposure was when their high school or their community hosted one. The first one at USD was organized by a graduate student who had participated in a relay while living in Hawaii. According to the American Cancer Society, one out of every 100 Americans participates in a Relay for Life event and there are events in more than 600 communities that span 19 countries outside the United States.

Next year will mark a decade for USD's Relay for Life event. Bubnack said the goal is to put together an extra special event that involves a campus-wide effort, including alumni, student organizations and more. She said event leadership committee applications are now available for students for the 2017-18 school year. Email for more information. Also, while the 2017 Relay for Life event has taken place, donations toward the overall USD Relay for Life total for 2017 are still being accepted. 

— Ryan T. Blystone