October 2014 was good to Melanie Williams – she’s a survivor. That fall was when her oncologists declared that her stage IV breast cancer was in full-remission. Melanie doesn’t like to be the center of attention, and for a long time, kept her cancer a secret. But, through her participation in the Relay for Life of Thurston County event, and through the support she found via the American Cancer Society, Melanie realized that her story offers hope for people, and so she tells it because of that.

I sat down to lunch with Melanie and her daughter, Amanda Hanks, one recent afternoon. Amanda’s two-month-old baby, Holley, quietly joined us at the table, too. If baby Holley only knew of the strength, courage, and tenacity that her mother and grandmother had shown through Melanie’s cancer fight – and every day since – she’d be proud.

Relay for Life Melanie Williams
Melanie Williams is a survivor of stage IV breast cancer. She participates in Relay for Life events and shares her story to bring hope to others. Photo credit: Melanie Williams

After her mother’s diagnosis in 2013, Amanda was “freaked out.” She flung herself into research and every October began wearing all pink and posting on her social media daily about cancers and the ways she was finding to show up as a supporter. By then, her mother Melanie, fortunately had found a way to manage her own cancer, through a hormone therapy that launched her into a medical menopause.

“I have a type of cancer that is responsive to hormones,” Melanie relays, “so essentially the hormones that I create in my body also create cancer.”

Even after Melanie’s cancer was suppressed, Amanda continued to show up for not only her mother, but for everyone fighting, and her efforts weren’t going unnoticed.

Nichole Woolsey, senior community development manager for the American Cancer Society saw what Amanda had been up to, and asked her to volunteer her time as an event lead for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Eventually, Amanda became the co-lead, alongside Alexa Warden, for this year’s 24-hour Relay for Life event held at Komachin Middle School on June 21 at 6:00 p.m.

Relay for Life of Thurston County is the second-largest Relay event in our state. Amanda, Alexa, and a committee of 20 dedicated volunteers make the event come to life by hosting ceremonies, offering a donated, catered meal for survivors, and conducting the deeply revered Luminaria. Teams and individuals register to participate in the fundraising that fuels the work that the American Cancer Society does, like supporting researchers who discovered the BRCA gene that denotes if your cancer is hereditary, and discovering tamoxifen, a widely used drug in cancer management.

This year’s event, United in the Fight, will have about 50 tents that line the track where registered teams offer food, games, crafts, and more throughout all 24 hours of the event  Because, as Melanie points out, “cancer never sleeps.”

Relay for Life Thurston County
Kyle Williams supports his wife, Melanie Williams, at the Relay for Life of Thurston County event. He walked all 24 hours
of the event because to him, “cancer never sleeps,” so why should he? Photo credit: Amanda Hanks

During last year’s Relay, Melanie’s husband, Kyle Williams, didn’t sleep either. He was one of two 24-hour walkers. Kyle completed 169 laps around the track, a whopping 42.25 miles. After each lap, his family adorned him with a different cancer symbol on his shirt, in all colors, because Relay for Life supports all types of cancers, not just Melanie’s.

After the opening ceremony was the Survivor’s Lap – the first, and also the most important lap in Melanie’s opinion. “It’s community,” she says. “Because we’re all in this fight together.” Melanie’s voice begins to shake and her tears start to flow, but she continues, “To look around you and to be holding hands with people that you don’t know, who are fighting that fight with you – it’s just so amazing.”

I got a little teary too, and shared with Melanie that my dear friend is fighting cancer right now, and Melanie urged me to invite her to the Survivor’s Lap. Both Amanda and Melanie can tell I’m perplexed, so Amanda explains that, “At the American Cancer Society, as soon as you hear the words ‘you have cancer,’ you are a survivor. You survived that day, that hour, that minute.” It’s this philosophy and unwavering support that ACS provides that has turned Melanie and Amanda into advocates.

Later in the evening’s programming is the Luminaria event. It happens after dark, and Amanda says for her it is the most impactful, not-to-miss part of the entire event. “It’s a dedication to our loved ones who have ever heard the words ‘you have cancer,’” she says, “and a ceremony to remember those we have lost to it.”

White paper bags encircle the track, inscribed with names, hopes, determination, and support. Each bag has a candle in it and all are lit simultaneously until the whole track and field are aglow. Amanda says it’s peaceful, and a slideshow plays during it with pictures of loved ones, and people come from all over just to attend this special, candle-lit act of love.

Amanda works tirelessly to coordinate the event; she spends hundreds of volunteer hours throughout the year. With baby Holley strapped to her, she doesn’t give up – even when planning feels hard. I suspect she garnered some of that true grit from her mother.

The public is more than welcome, encouraged in fact, to join in the Relay for Life event. The event is completely free to attend. You can donate in many ways, if you wish, but also anyone can show up, stand on the sidelines, and cheer on a relayer. That’s how life works, right? Sometimes all we need in our hardest times is for someone to show up and cheer us on.

Cancer information, answers, and hope are available every minute of every day through the American Cancer Society. Call their 24/7 helpline at 800-227-2345.

Relay for Life of Thurston County

June 21-22, 6:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Komachin Middle School
3650 College Street SE
Lacey, WA

And, if you were wondering about Melanie and Amanda’s team, it’s called Fudge Cancer. Melanie was quick to remind that yes, it’s a play on words. If you’d like to make an electronic donation to their fundraising efforts, you can do so on their team page at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life of Thurston County’s webpage.

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