By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – “I'm sorry; you have cancer,” the words hit Carol Cascadden like a brick when her doctor delivered the diagnosis five years ago. It was the beginning of an 18-month journey through chemotherapy and self-discovery.
But she has lived to tell her story.
“I'm so grateful I survived,” said Cascadden, who needed a tissue to dry her eyes as she stepped up to the Survivors registration table last night. Her emotions got the better of her on the drive from her Hampstead home to Pinkerton Academy's football field for the 14th annual Relay For Life.
All that she'd endured, all that she'd suffered, all that she'd feared and all that she'd conquered welled up inside of her. As she walked through the gates and took in the scene – a tent city surrounded by a sea of cancer warriors – the signs, the decorations, the balloons, the team T-shirts, the spirit of solidarity against a common foe was just what she needed to remind her just how good it feels to be alive.
“When you hear those words, that you have cancer, you think your life is over,” Cascadden said.
But five years later, her life is well worth celebrating, so she gathered with some of her friends from the Londonderry Curves who formed a team to raise money to support those who, like Cascadden, have walked through the darkest of places, never knowing when the light of day would return.
The Curves crew was one of 89 teams that registered for the annual event which, last year, raised more than $200,000 for the American Cancer Society. It is the largest of the 22 Relays held throughout the state each year, said Brigit Ryan, of the ACS regional office in Bedford.
What brings many people back year after year to walk through the night for a worthy cause is the tradition and camaraderie, including the various theme laps, where participants get to dress up in costume or compete as they make their way around the track.
One of the favorite and most solemn moments comes at 9 p.m. each year, during the Luminaria Quiet Hour. Candles are lit and a slide show flips through photos of loved ones lost to cancer. This year that hour – and this relay – was dedicated to Betty Jane "BJ" Allgaier, who served as co-chair of the annual event for the past three years. Although she survived breast cancer for a decade, last fall the disease resurfaced in her lungs. She died in April, leaving a void within the Relay community, said Steve Dente, a Rotarian who has been part of the organizational team for years.
“BJ was the No. 1 advocate for those with cancer. She was a powerful woman. She had a powerful voice, and was behind so much of what this event is about,” said Dente, unable to finish the thought through his tears. “We are all missing her tonight.”
At the beginning of the event, participants gathered around the grandstand. Survivors in dark purple T-shirts came forward for carnations while the rest of the crowd sustained applause for several minutes until the last flowers were handed out.
Survivor Jason Phelps stepped to the microphone.
“Cancer is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I've never looked back, never asked 'why me.' I started meeting new people – at first mainly doctors and nurses. But then I met other patients, other survivors. I got involved in Making Strides, and Relay for Life, and I met people who think cancer sucks and want to find a cure,” said Phelps. “It changed my attitude about life.”