Pacana Park will fill with hundreds of cancer survivors, their caregivers and supporters as the third annual Relay for Life of Maricopa kicks off at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The overnight event includes an opening ceremony, a survivor’s lap, a candle-lit luminaria ceremony to remember all who have lost their lives to cancer and a closing ceremony.
The Relay for Life has personal meaning for Tanya Alvarado, who started work with the Susan G. Komen foundation after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. As time went on, Alvarado said she became inspired to help with the Maricopa event by the first Relay for Life co-chairwoman Gwen Traylor.
“I saw her and thought, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’” Alvarado said. “It hit close to home because of my mom and I wanted to be someone who was really active in my support.”
Now Alvarado and her mother Ann Geach are co-chairwomen of the Survivors and Caregivers dinner the night before the race in the ballroom at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino.
Playing off the Relay’s theme this year of “Maricopa is Having a Ball Curing Cancer,” the dinner’s theme is a “Masquerade Ball,” Alvarado said.
“We’re more than happy to have people come in costume,” she said. The 5 to 7 p.m. event is free to survivors and current and former caregivers and is sponsored for the third year by Harrah’s Ak-Chin. People are asked to RSVP by 10 a.m. Wednesday by contacting MaricopaRFLSurvivors@yahoo.com.
“And, we’re still looking for any little chotchkies from businesses like coupons, or any little things, because we give gift bags to everyone,” she said. People interested in donating goodies can call Alvarado at 520-705-8895.
Ann Geach, Alvarado’s 52-year-old mother, said she “does whatever it takes” to raise cancer awareness of those around her. Geach wears Relay shirts, talks to local businesses and communities about cancer treatment funding and hopes one day to find an informal gathering place where she can just talk to people and teach them how to be proactive about the disease.
“I was stunned. Absolutely stunned,” Geach said about when she found out she had cancer. “I went to the doctor for another reason and my doctor asked how long I had a lump … I was so positive that it wasn’t gonna be cancer that I told my husband to not come with me to hear the test results.
“Seeing me standing there, the doctor asked if I was alone and I immediately knew it; I was wrong and I was about to hear that I had cancer.”
Diagnosed in 2004 with breast cancer, Geach underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Doctors told her she could not have reconstructive surgery because of the cancer’s spread and type of surgery required. She had to get a prosthetic and special bras, which are not cheap, she said.
Geach reached out to the American Cancer Society who assigned her a social worker, a surgeon, an oncologist and five other doctors.
“It was wonderful,” Geach said. “I was involved in every decision and I wasn’t forced to do anything. They talked to me, not at me.
“I wasn’t just cancer, I was a person.”
In 2011, seven years after her mother was diagnosed, Alvarado found out Relay for Life was coming to Maricopa and looking for sponsors.
Alvarado, who has worked for Harrah’s Ak-Chin for 15 years, presented a sponsorship plan to her employers.
She became Harrah’s Ak-Chin’s sponsor chairwoman that first year.
This year, Alvarado is the primary team captain for Harrah’s Ak-Chin. It is fielding seven teams consisting of 96 employees and their families.Along with sponsoring the Relay for Life and survivors/caregivers dinner, Harrah’s Ak-Chin holds fundraising pajama and jeans days when employees donate money to wear casual clothes. It has held car washes and a bake sale to raise money, and also is selling concessions on the day of the event featuring vendors from the casino.
“We couldn’t do this without our volunteers,” said Jane Stimmel, Harrah’s Ak-Chin’s Hero Committee chairwoman. “We have many co-workers who have been affected by cancer, or know someone who has, and they are so eager to help.”
Geach said the most important lesson to take from these fundraising events is that cancer is very dangerous but can be avoided.
“Cancer, you know, everyone can prevent it by being proactive with testing and monitoring yourself,” Geach said. “In all reality it’s better to say that you never got it.”
“I’m cancer-free,” Geach said. “I’m fine with that. It feels awesome to have beaten it and that’s why I relay.”
Relay for Life is an annual event in which more than 4 million people in more than 20 countries participate. In Maricopa last year, $121,372 was raised. In the first year $75,000 was raised.
The event times are still being firmed up. Click here for the latest information.