The walkways of Sunnybrook Park were lined with decorative bags adorned with the names of friends and family. Each bag enclosed a candle, which would illuminate the park after hours. The bags and the light emanating from them serve as a symbolic gesture of hope for people facing cancer. Wadena held its 2019 Relay for Life Ceremony on Aug. 9.

The park was abuzz with games and activities. Merickel workers were operating a dunk tank on the periphery of the festivities. A silent auction and root beer floats were served while sparklers danced in the background. The tone was one of somber reflection. Cancer survivors walked about the park wearing special purple shirts.

“I am a cancer survivor so I wanted to support others who are also battling or who have battled,” said Daina Brown as she was taking a break from the evening's festivities. Brown was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called spindle thyroid carcinoma. She was the 42nd person diagnosed with this form of thyroid cancer. She took her walk with fellow survivors and praised the event as a moral boosting opportunity. Being surrounded by people who have been cancer free for 20 plus years was a major point of inspiration for Brown.

Daina Brown was diagnosed with spindle thyroid carcinoma. She was at the event to walk with fellow survivors.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Daina Brown was diagnosed with spindle thyroid carcinoma. She was at the event to walk with fellow survivors. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal

Dinah Russo, co-chair for the Wadena Relay for Life drew the attention of the crowd with her purple tutu. Russo went all out for the event devoting dozens of hours to its organization. For her, the days leading up to the relay were a chaotic stream of emails, meetings, and coordination. “It brings communities together,” exclaimed Russo when she was asked about the importance of such events.

Dinah Russo explained that events like this bring people together.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Dinah Russo explained that events like this bring people together. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal

As the sun lowered, Bill Hess took to the stage. Hess was chosen to be the keynote speaker. He spoke words of hope and encouragement. He wanted those who have recently been diagnosed with cancer to stay strong and never give up. New advances in medicine and technology are right around the corner, according to Hess. He spoke specifically about immunotherapy, a special type of treatment where the body’s cells are altered to attack cancer. This type of therapy would free people from painful chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He was also quite interested in advances in blood testing. In the future it may be possible to detect cancer simply by administering a blood analysis, something that would vastly help with early prevention.

Hess discussed advancements in medicine, treatment, and early detection.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Hess discussed advancements in medicine, treatment, and early detection. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal

Hess offered advice for people taking on the role of a primary caregiver. His advice centered on practicality and communication. Caring for someone with cancer can be tough, a caregiver has to be almost entirely devoted to their needs. He stressed treating them like people, cancer is not the sole defining characteristic of a person. It's not something that has to dominate every conversation, some people simply get tired of discussing their illness. He explained that making plans and giving people something to look forward too eases the pain and isolation of the disease. A simple coffee date could be the perfect thing to lift spirits.

His speech grew evermore personal as he recounted all of the loved ones he’s lost to cancer. Several of his family members have been diagnosed with cancer, his own children, and relatively recently, he lost his sister to cancer. His sister had a young son, he was only 9 when she passed. During her struggle she prayed not for her own recovery but for her son Ashten Tande. She hoped he would grow and thrive. Tande has autism and during his mother's illness, he was suffering from issues stemming from his neurological disorder. He had difficulties breaking routine and trying new things. While she was sick, many hours were spent researching, reading, and talking to foundations dedicated to helping people with autism. Years later Tande is a healthy 12-year-old much to the pride and happiness of his uncle, Hess.

Ashten Tande lost his mother to cancer when he was 9 years old. He and his uncle attend the Relay for Life to honor cancer survivors and to remember those who have passed away.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Ashten Tande lost his mother to cancer when he was 9 years old. He and his uncle attend the Relay for Life to honor cancer survivors and to remember those who have passed away. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal

After the speech, Tande along with Hess walked the path lined with candles. Hess held in his hand the ceremonial torch. The procession made its way down the path as a crowd looked on at the flames dancing over their heads.

“It happened to me and I was so young, I don’t think it should happen to anyone else,” said Tande.