Relay participants rally to help find cancer cure


Staff Writer

PLUMSTED — Eighteen countries and 17 states were represented by teams in the fourth annual Allentown-New Egypt-Upper Freehold Relay for Life.

The theme for this year’s event, which was held June 4-5 at New Egypt High School, was Relay Around the World. Teams dressed as natives of nations from Egypt to Iceland walked to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Ivan Olinsky, chairman of the event, is a skin cancer survivor. In his opening remarks, he applauded the many volunteers who worked for six months to put the relay together.

“In four short years, we have raised over $350,000,” he said. “We will find the cure.”

Since its inception in 1988, Relay for Life has grown to more than 3,300 events across the country and internationally. Last year alone, Olinsky said, Relay for Life raised more than $9 million.

“Every relay has its own flavor, tradition and specific activities,” Olinsky said.

Olinsky said the relay is therapeutic for him, as not one day goes by that he does not think about his daughter, Michelle, who lost her battle with cancer in 2000.

“I know that people helping people does help others ease pain,” Olinsky said. “Don’t believe in miracles — depend on them. Our duty to ourselves here is to believe a cure for sure will someday be present.”

Ron Dancer, New Egypt mayor and state Assemblyman, presented Olinsky with a joint legislative resolution from the governor and the state Legislature commending the community Allentown-New Egypt-Upper Freehold Relay for Life.

Relay remembered those lost to the disease during the luminaria ceremony held late Saturday night, when hundreds of area residents lit candles to commemorate friends and family members. However, the relay focuses on survivors, who are the guests of honor.

“Are we winning the war on cancer?” Olinsky asked. “My best reminders are right here — our survivors. There are over 9 million [cancer] survivors in the U.S. today.”

He said the relay’s purpose was to raise money for research and also ensure that “no one ever feels alone in the fight against cancer.”

Some local survivors shared their stories.

Domenica Colavito, 6, of New Egypt said she enjoyed the relay activities. She helped cut the ribbon for the opening ceremonies, got to ride in a golf cart and met her first real clown. Domenica may not have realized why such a fuss was being made about her, but her mother, Michele, explained that her daughter was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma when she was only 1 year old.

When Mrs. Colavito noticed that her infant daughter had breathing problems, the pediatrician who did the initial X-ray thought she had swallowed something. A CAT scan showed a mass and a biopsy was done the following day.

When the diagnosis came, Mrs. Colavito said she was in shock.

“I never had a family member or knew anyone who experienced [cancer],” she said.

Domenica was on chemotherapy for two years but has been in remission for the past three years.

“She has to be off medication for five years before she is considered cured,” her mother said.

Domenica, who has no memory of her disease or treatment, is a typical kindergartner who enjoys swimming, and her dance and tae kwon do classes. Her mom explained to her that she was sick when she was little and that this event helps raise money for treatment.

Domenica saved up her leftover lunch money and donated $2.50 to the relay, her mother said.

For the past three relays, Michael McDonald, of Allentown, has been an active volunteer. He is married to Kathy, Olinsky’s daughter.

But this year, McDonald is more than a volunteer. He, too, is a survivor, having been diagnosed with melanoma six months ago.

McDonald, 37, said his diagnosis was shocking to him. Although he had worked on Relay for Life with his in-laws‚ who had personal experience with cancer, he never thought it would happen to him.

When a mole on McDonald’s chest began to change, his wife insisted he have it checked out. A biopsy confirmed her fears.

Kathy McDonald said she was traumatized by the news, and that her father had a melanoma in the same place.

The couple has two boys, ages 12 and 9. McDonald, a welder, said he now wears sunblock all the time and must undergo a body scan every six months. He said the relay was always a tearjerker, but this year it will be even more so.

“[A cancer diagnosis] is a real awakening,” he said. “I look at things differently [now].”

George Ryba, 69, of Cream Ridge, is a two-year survivor of prostate cancer. He endured two hormone shots and 40 radiation treatments.

“The biggest thing is I’m tired a lot more,” he said. “I can’t do what I used to do.”

Ryba, who will retire in two months from the state Department of Education, said that he has finished with treatments and is in remission. But he must still go every six months for a check-up and tests.

Ryba said he and his wife will eventually relocate to Louisiana after retirement.

Karen Kraemer, 43, of New Egypt, is a two-year survivor of breast cancer. She found a tumor while doing a breast self-exam. Her doctor thought it was probably soft-tissue damage, but additional tests confirmed it was cancer.

Kraemer had a mastectomy and underwent reconstructive surgery at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. She did her chemotherapy at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey at Hamilton, Mercer County. After chemo, she returned to Fox Chase for radiation treatments.

Although her grandmother had the disease, Kraemer said being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41 was the last thing she ever could have imagined happening.

Kraemer has three children, who were 18, 16 and 12 when she was diagnosed. During her treatment, she tried hard to keep things as normal as possible for her family.

Kraemer said she had a good support system.

“Good friends and family helped me out,” she said. “It’s important when you are going through it.” Still, “I don’t know how I did it,” she said.

Kraemer said her positive attitude kept her going.

“I decided I have three kids and I have to be around,” she said.