BY BILL PHILLIPS
The Survivor’s Lap is easily one of the most emotional aspects of the annual Relay for Life.
A sea of people wearing yellow T-shirts kick off the relay. Every yellow shirt is worn by someone who is currently on their cancer journey or who is a survivor.
Before the Survivor’s Lap this year, participants will hear from a true survivor.
Ten years ago, Eva Patten was told she had about six months to live. Ten years later, she will give the keynote address to begin the relay.
“I want to show people that there is hope,” Patten says of why she said yes to giving the keynote when asked by Aimee Caissie of the Canadian Cancer Society. “Even though you get the cancer diagnosis, sometimes at the beginning, like me, you get told that it’s not going to be a good outcome … If there is one person standing in the crowd that feels like maybe there isn’t hope and they’ve been told the same thing, that they only have six months to a year to live, don’t give up hope.”
In 2008, Patten was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, fairly uncommon at her age. Multiple myeloma causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow, where they crowd out healthy blood cells.
She was also diagnosed with amyloidosis, a rare disease that occurs when a substance called amyloid builds up in the organs. Amyloid is an abnormal protein that is produced in the bone marrow and can be deposited in any tissue or organ. It can affect the heart, kidneys, liver, spleen, nervous system, stomach or intestines. The condition is rare (affecting fewer than 4,000 people in the United States each year).
She had a stem cell transplant, which worked well on the myeloma but not so well on the amyloidosis. She was sent home and basically put in palliative care. Her family was told she probably had about six months to live.
“They told my children to go home and try to spend as much time as they could with their mom because she probably won’t be here in six months,” she said. “Ten years later, I’m still here.”
She credits the perseverance of the late Dr. Bert Kelly for, firstly, helping diagnose the extremely rare cancers and, secondly, for helping getting approval for a trial drug. The trial drug was followed by four-and-a-half years of straight chemotherapy.
“There are a lot of really hard days,” she says.
Her sister said were days she thought she might say goodnight to Eva and that she might not be there in the morning. Eva says she had those days as well.
“I had many of those nights I thought if close my eyes and go to sleep, I’m probably not going to wake up,” she says. “But then I’d wake up the next morning and so then I’d think ‘I wasn’t going to make it through the day yesterday, but then I did, so I’ll probably make today then too … There is hope … You have to keep fighting.”
Patten says she doesn’t know why she is the one who’s still here and why others lose the battle with cancer.
“But I know I have to get up in the morning and do the best I can with I have for that day and keep going. So that’s what I do.”
Having support is very important, she says.
“From the day of transplant, every day I had someone there,” she says. “I was never alone, ever. I couldn’t imagine trying to do it without family and friends for support.”
The health part is tough enough, but the financial impact is also very tough and support from her family was crucial.
“I made my daughter Crystal promise me that no matter how weak I was, or how much I argued, I had to get out of bed every day. I didn’t want my body to think it was allowed give up and just lay there. I know it was hard on her as well, but I believe it was one of the things that kept me going.”
Through it all she has gained inspiration from all different places and has a tattoo on her leg that says: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”
She has been participating in Relay for Life since she was diagnosed. She knows that the Relay can be intimidating for people who have just been diagnosed and, in some ways “it makes it real.”
But once people experience the Relay and all those who are trying to help, they will understand that they are not alone.
“Without Relay for Life and the fundraisers, I probably wouldn’t be here because it’s through all that and all the research that they keep coming up with new protocols that keep us alive.”
The Luminary Ceremony is emotional part of the Relay for Life as candles are lit inside paper bags with names of people who are fighting cancer and those who have lost that fight.
“I don’t how a person can do it and not shed a tear. You see all the people who are fighting it, and all the people who have been lost. Everybody wants the same thing … to find something to keep our loved ones here.”
Patten encourages everyone to come out Relay, even if you’re not part of a team. Just enjoy the event, enjoy the people.
Last week Eva met with John Brink, one of the sponsors of the Relay for Life, who was moved by her story.
“It’s an amazing story,” Brink says. “What is obvious with Eva is she is strong and has a very positive attitude and excellent support system behind her and was blessed to have some real good health professionals on her side. Listening to her story is a real inspiration.”
Last year the Prince George Relay for Life, which is the only 24-hour Relay, was tops in Canada raising $580,000. This year $600,000 is well within reach.
The Relay for Life goes June 9-10 at Exhibition Park.