(Alexandra Tassoni (l) and Caitlin Bauer (r) as Co-chairs were instrumental in organizing Carleton University’s 14th annual Relay for Life raising funds for cancer. Caitlin of Stittsville is not new to Relay for Life events having co-chaired several at Sacred Heart High School, Algonquin College and at Carleton University. Photos: Kaitlyn LeBoutillier)
On March 10th, 2023 Carleton University held its 14th annual Relay for Life. The event was Co-chaired by Alexandra Tassoni and Caitlin Bauer. Caitlin is from Stittsville and has been involved with Relay for Life events for the past ten years. She has participated in and co-chaired events at Sacred Heart High School, Algonquin College and now Carleton University.
If you’ve never heard of it or are unclear about what exactly Relay for Life is, Relay is essentially a year-long (or school-year-long) fundraiser that often ends in a 12-hour event to cap off fundraising. Relay for Life is a charity in support of the Canadian Cancer Society and all its funds go to supporting current and former cancer patients as well as cancer research.
Caitlin Bauer’s connection to Relay for Life has been long-lasting, but what draws her to the co-chair role? “I do this event because of the real-life impact the Canadian Cancer Society has on people living with cancer. I relay for my grandparents who have all battled cancer, my friends/neighbours/coworkers and all the people I have met in the Relay community,” Caitlin shares. “My favourite part of Relay for Life is the coming together as a community. To see everyone gathering for the same cause has the biggest impact on me.”
In schools, Relay for Life is a team fundraiser where students create their own teams and organize different fundraising initiatives like bake sales, car washes, trivia nights, raffles, and so on. This year, Carleton University had 58 teams participate this year and over 450 participants. Throughout the school year leading up to the event, these participants raised over $75,000. But the fundraising doesn’t end when the event starts! There are many different donation bags, raffle tables and other ways to fundraise during the actual event, but we’ll get into that later!
Relay for Life events start with an Opening Ceremony. Here, the organization committee usually highlights the fundraising goal, the amount fundraised to date, some rules for the night, and any other important information. At Carleton’s relay, the committee explained that because they had hit their $75,000 goal before the event, they were bumping it up to $125,000 for the night! They also reminded participants that each team should have one person walking or running a lap at all times. That is where the “relay” part of Relay for Life comes in, the final event is like a relay race where team members pass along a baton to make sure someone from their team is always on the track.
After the committee got everyone started, they welcomed a few guest speakers to the stage. The first speaker was survivor and relay participant Jakob Bouse. Jakob was diagnosed with a brain tumour back in 2015 when he was in grade six. He explained how at first he had symptoms that just made it hard for him to do everyday tasks and to do the things he loved like playing hockey. When he found out that these symptoms were the result of a tumour, he wasn’t scared, he knew he was going to “kick cancer’s ass.” During his speech Jakob explained how from the end of grade six until grade eight, he would go to chemotherapy every Friday and then still try to go back to school and have a normal school day.
This is what makes this event so meaningful and so special. Many participants and survivors find friends through relay or people who will listen or share their struggles, so that life can still seem normal even in their toughest times. Many of the funds from Relay for Life go towards phone calls to survivors. Sometimes people who are battling or who have battled cancer need someone to talk to who doesn’t know them or isn’t a family member, or sometimes, those who are battling cancer don’t have anyone else to talk to. That is why the Canadian Cancer Society has those phone lines because no one should ever be battling alone.
The next speaker during the opening ceremony was Dustin Rivers. He works with the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) and is also a cancer survivor of multiple myeloma, a blood cell cancer. Dustin shared his emotional story of battling cancer and receiving a stem cell transplant that allowed him to live long enough to see his son Micheal grow up, something that might not have been possible just five or ten years ago. Dustin brought his son with him to the event so they both could say thank you on behave of CUSA and their family for the work that participants and Relay for Life have done. This again just goes to show the impact that Relay for Life and the Canadian Cancer Society have and how we can all make a difference if we come together.
The last speaker brought up before the co-chairs kicked off the event was Ally, a Canadian Cancer Society Rep who works with all post-secondary schools across the nation with their Relay for Life events. She shared that by hitting their $75,000 goal Carleton University has now raised 1.3 million dollars over the past 14 years through Relay for Life. That is an incredible number that translates directly to so many lives being changed and battles being fought.
Finally, the co-chairs took the stage and were ready to get the night started. But before the first lap could be walked, Alex and Caitlin shared the fundraising winners for the year. The fundraising team was Kappa Sigma with over $10,700 raised and from that team, the individual who fundraised the most was Alex De Cotteau-Nedd with over $3,000 raised.
Co-Chair Alex Tassoni, got the relay started by announcing the survivor’s lap which is the traditional first lap of Relay for Life where all the survivors in attendance do a lap by themselves while all the other participants cheer them on. Alex explained that she “likes to see Relay for Life as having three main components; celebrating survivors, honouring those who are no longer here, and striving for a future where cancer does not have such a big toll on people.” That first component is where the survivor lap comes in. After the survivors finish their first lap, everyone joins in and all the participants and survivors do a lap together. From then on, there were many other events, games, and fundraisers for participants to do, as long as someone from their team was still walking of course!
While people were starting to file off the track and go explore some of the fun activities, we caught up with three survivors, Patty Duncan, Val Laframboise, and Erin Beatty and walked a lap with them to talk about their impressions of the night so far and what Relay for Life meant to them. Patty Duncan shared that she was thankful for “all the love and support that they had gotten from the University” and hopes that they can “raise money to eventually find options to make cancer go away.” Those are two sentiments that became incredibly clear throughout the night. Everyone at Relay for Life Carleton was incredibly supportive and inviting, and there was also a sense that everyone was on the same team fighting against cancer doing all they could to make it go away. Erin Beatty also shared that the thing she was most looking forward to during the Relay Event was “raising funds for cancer research” and seeing how much Carleton could accomplish.
Val Laframboise shared, “I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and I have been participating in Relay for Life before that and now I’m participating as a survivor since then. It’s a great connection and a great way to show to people out there that cancer can happen to younger people as well.” Part of what makes Relay for Life such an incredible organization is the impact it can have on the youth. High School and University students learn so much about cancer research and the Canadian Cancer Society through Relay for Life and they get to meet amazing and inspiring people through the events that Relay puts on. It is a great way to connect youth with survivors, and those battling cancer so that no one feels alone and people realize that this can happen to anyone.
Caitlin and Alex had a lot of activities planned throughout the night such as midnight yoga to keep everyone awake, minute-to-win-it games such as balloon popping, and even a Latin dance lesson! Some of the ongoing activities included giant Jenga, a video game booth, pie-ing your friends in the face, and some waxing, shaving, and hair-cutting fundraisers. But the most important activity going on for the first half of the night was the luminary decorating table.
A luminary is a small white bag with a tea light placed inside. A key part of every Relay for Life event is a luminary ceremony where the track is lined with these luminaries and the lights are turned down. This part of the night is the “honouring those who are no longer here” section of the event. Luminaries are decorated however you’d like but often include the phrase “I relay for…” followed by a friend, family member, stranger, celebrity, or anyone impacted by cancer that you are relaying for. Some people also write impactful statements like “I relay for those who cannot” or “I relay for a cure” on their luminaries.
At 11:30, CarletonU started their luminary ceremony by hearing from Neave, a Carleton Alumni and survivor who shared their experience with cancer. Their cancer journey started when they were in grade eight and were battling uterine cancer, undiagnosed from grade eight until grade ten. Neave shared their emotional and difficult story of having undiagnosed cancer and having to fight to get an MRI done to diagnose the cancer. Then, after being diagnosed, they had to push again to have a hysterectomy. Neave shared how because society has such strong standards for young girls to remain fertile, their personal doctor insisted that they do not go through with the hysterectomy, even though every single adolescent with this form of cancer who had refused a hysterectomy, had died. Luckily the decision was up to Neave and they decided to get a hysterectomy.
It might seem like a no-brainer decision to get the surgery when the statistics appear the way they are, however, the surgery means no longer being able to get pregnant. Neave talks about dreaming of being pregnant and having kids since they were young and how it was something they always really wanted to do. With cancer often comes sacrifices. Even though it means beating cancer and surviving, people lose many things while battling cancer. That is why Neave’s speech was so impactful before the luminary ceremony, a time when we usually think of those who have died from cancer. However, we can also think of those who have lost something because of their battle with cancer.
The luminary ceremony is an eye-opening experience. It is a moment that puts into perspective the statistics. You can read that 2 in 5 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and that is a scary number, but as you are walking around the track full of luminaries with different names all over them, some with multiple names written across them, it is clear just how many people are impacted by cancer and how many lives the horrible disease has reached.
Perhaps the most impactful part of the luminary ceremony though was seeing the way everyone came together. People would take time in front of certain luminaries. They would sit or stand and sometimes talk to the luminary, or just cry. You would pass someone alone at a luminary and by the time you came back around on your next lap they would be in a group hug or have someone sitting with them. The luminary ceremony brought people together and showed that no one is alone battling cancer, and no one is alone after the battle is over.
To conclude the luminary ceremony, the Carleton choir as well as other guest singers sang beautiful songs such as “If I Die Young” and “Imagine.” Then, Alex Tassoni came back to the stage to share the story of Daniella, a young girl who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and cancer. She received a lung transplant at fifteen years old, but the cancer came back and she died days before her sixteenth birthday. Alex said she relays for Daniella because “everyone should turn sixteen.” They then played the song “Just Breathe”, a song that Daniella wrote in musical therapy as performed by her friends during her celebration of life.
As Alex explained in her opening speech, there are three parts to Relay. You celebrate those who have survived cancer, as seen in the survivor’s lap and the amazing stories shared by survivors throughout the night, you honour those who are no longer here, which was seen in the incredibly moving luminary ceremony, and lastly, you do all that you can strive for a future where a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence. That means raising funds and raising awareness for cancer research and cancer patients. Carleton University’s relay for life this year did just that with their final total raised coming to $118,680.54. That means over 11 thousand phone calls to support someone impacted by cancer, 25 hundred meals provided to individuals undergoing cancer treatment, one thousand rounds of immunotherapy research, and 78 kids living with cancer sent to summer camp!
Co-Chair Caitlin Bauers says that “this year’s event was more successful than I anticipated. Carleton University’s Relay for Life has not been in person since March 2019. With our March 2020 event cancelled and the past two years being online events, I really was not sure what to expect. With a committee of 42 full-time students dedicated to volunteering their free time and the participants who attended the event, that’s what made it successful. This experience has shown me how the Relay for Life community represents resilience and the ability to persevere through tough times.”
Congratulations to Relay for Life Carleton on such a successful fundraiser, and thank you for all the hard work you have put into making this event so impactful and meaningful to so many people.
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