Attendees raise funds for cause that's personal to many

Six years ago Cecilia Sample-Bergren was diagnosed with brain cancer.

At 4 years old, Cecilia went through chemotherapy and radiation. She had a stem cell transplant and was quarantined for nearly a month. Now, at 12 years old, Cecilia still goes for annual checkups, but she is currently cancer free, said her grandmother Kelly Larson.

"Because of Relay and the things they do, we still have her," Larson said.

Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" blared from the loudspeakers as Cecilia, breast cancer survivor Olinda Prokupek and skin cancer survivor Donna Fennell led the first lap of this year's Relay for Life on Saturday. With nearly 50 cancer survivors clad in purple T-shirts behind them, the trio held the survivor banner as they made their way around the track at Del Norte High School.

Some have finished their battle with cancer and are now fighting back for others. For many on that track, their fight continues.But they are still survivors, said Debbie Dean, who does publicity for the Del Norte Relay for Life committee.

"They haven't lost their fight yet," she said. "We take it one day at a time."

Cecilia, who will be in the seventh grade at Crescent Elk Middle School, said she has carried the purple survivor banner for every relay since she was diagnosed with cancer. On Saturday, however, Cecilia and her family were out relaying for her aunt Annie, who battled ovarian cancer.

Larson said she and her family have participated in Relay for Life since it started 15 years ago.

"We've got a lot of friends and family here to support us," she said.

Prokupek, who is a member of the Tally Ho Cancer Crushers team, is a 19-month survivor of breast cancer after having three surgeries on each breast. She said she needs more surgery.

"But I keep going," she said. "I don't look back. Every day you get up in the morning you should be happy and keep going."

In addition to walking and running the track, Relay for Life participants sold baked goods, food, raffle tickets and held carnival games. Christina Hall and her family decided to sell arboreum Schwarzkopf plants. They also planted plant cuttings in pink and purple containers to give away to each cancer survivor.

Arboreum Schwarzkopfs are succulents native to the Canary Islands. They are plants hardy enough for Northern California's cool weather, Hall said, and bear purple leaves. The more direct sunlight they receive, the darker purple their leaves appear, she said.

"They all came from one cutting from LA in 1994," Hall said. "My mom clipped it, and they have been growing like crazy ever since."

She added that the arboreum Schwarzkopf plants, like cancer survivors, are tough.

"They look like flowers, but they're tough as nails," Hall said.

At the other end of the track, Renee Neeley and the Walgreens team offered folks a chance to win a goldfish for 50 cents. The goldfish were donated to the team from Andrew's Green Ark Pet Store, Neeley said.

Neeley said she started relaying for her grandfather, who died about five years ago from bone cancer.

"Just to see how painful it is ... I don't want anybody to have to see their grandfather like that," she said.

Neeley, who co-chaired the Relay for Life committee this year, will chair next year's event.

Georgina Burson, a 13-year survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was at Relay for Life with her mother and caregiver, Leota Garner, and her canine pal, Buttons the chihuahua.

Garner said her daughter had visited the doctor for a mammogram when health professionals found that the lymph nodes on her left side were all enlarged. Burson went through 72 chemotherapy treatment and 32 radiation treatments.

"They said I wasn't supposed to live - and look at me now," Burson said.

Burson said it's important for both men and women to get annual mammograms, noting that men can also get breast cancer. She added that cancer patients should keep fighting.

"If I can do it, they can do it," Burson said. "Do not give up."

Reach Jessica Cejnar at