Relay for Life unites community against cancer

Participants can sign banner that will be taken to Washington, D.C., to push for research funding
by: contributed photo, Eric Jones’ wife, Patricia Jones, is interviewed by the media in 2002. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, Patricia died a week after the couple’s 15th wedding anniversary.

Eric Jones pulls out a slim, pearl tinted photo album that he carries in a satchel. The cellophane crinkles as he opens it to the first page. He pauses on the black and white photograph of his wife taken for her high school graduation.

It is the same picture he used for her obituary three years ago.

'This is what I take to show politicians, when I am there to talk about cancer with them,' he said. 'This way cancer has a face. It's no longer just a statistic.'

But the statistics themselves are shocking.

About 7,400 cancer-related deaths are estimated for 2006 in Oregon. Doctors are anticipated to diagnose another 18,300 patients in Oregon this year, according to an American Cancer Society study.

Eric said he hopes for a better future.

The Relay for Life is held in more than 4,400 communities nationwide as a way to bring cancer survivors, those battling the disease and their loved ones together to raise awareness and funding in the hope for a cure.

Gresham's ninth annual Relay for Life, Friday and Saturday, July 14 and 15, at Gresham High School, will be a public place for personal stories.

Eric's story

On July 4, 1988, a euphoric couple watched fireworks blasting over Reno, Nev. Newlyweds Eric and Patricia Jones celebrated Independence Day in a double-ring ceremony and set out on the town.

Their lives were glorious, Eric said. Together they had three girls and endless dreams. There was only one problem - her smoking.

'I hated it,' he said. 'I grew up in a household where my mother smoked and then my wife was smoking too. Our first fight was about her smoking.'

'She gave presentations to kids in schools about smoking and cancer. She said it was like Russian roulette,' Eric said. 'She didn't know how right she was.'

Then, he learned the real meaning of hard luck. Patricia was diagnosed with throat cancer in October 1998.

Ironically, she had quit smoking three months before doctors discovered the problem.

Eric stood by his wife as dentists pulled all her teeth. She would have lost them all to radiation. He watched as doctors strapped her to a table and placed a white wire mesh mask on her face.

Then the doctors found skin cancer on her left leg.

He followed her into medical hell, taking pictures as she deteriorated with treatment.

'She wanted all of these pictures to be taken. That's how brave she was,' he said. 'She blew some of them up into posters to take to festivals and school presentations. She spoke to over 4,000 kids. She'd tell them she spent $34,000 to get like this and asked them if they thought she got her money's worth.'

He attended a few of Patricia's presentations and saw children leave the assembly, dumping cigarettes in the garbage on their way out the door.

For a while, Eric said, he thought she had survived the danger. Doctors had successfully treated her cancer. It had been five years, which is considered a landmark time for cancer patients.

'She improved. We thought she had survived it,' he said. 'But the truth is with cancer is that it can come back at any time, anywhere,' he said. 'The youngest person doctors had performed surgery on in the cancer unit was only 17 years old, a young boy. He had been smoking for three years, that's it.'

This time doctors found cancer in Patricia's lungs and liver. They knew it was serious.

She underwent seven sessions of chemotherapy before doctors discovered it had spread to her brain.

Patricia held on to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary. She died one week later.

Eric transformed his personal devastation into advocacy with the American Cancer Society, where he can continue to crusade against what his wife called the dragon of cancer.

The relay and beyond

Eric said he dreams of living in a world where he has to explain cancer to children like it was no different than an eight-track player - something that no longer exists.

'We are at a tipping point,' he said. 'I believe that. We are at a threshold.'

The federal government is one of the largest funding contributors of cancer research. Congress passed a bill aimed at eradicating cancer by the year 2015.

Then they cut federal spending on cancer research by $7 billion.

Eric said the Relay for Life, the signature fund-raiser for the cancer society, is a place to demonstrate commitment to meeting that deadline.

'It might look like a political issue, but cancer is not a partisan issue. It affects everybody,' he said.

This year the American Cancer Society is circulating a series of banners intended for the public to sign while at the relay. The banners will be taken to a presentation at Washington D.C., where government representatives will be invited for a tour. Called The Wall of Hope, the signatures from relay's nationwide are meant to signify the nation's desire to eradicate cancer.

Even if people cannot join the relay, Eric Jones said they are welcome to show their support by stopping to sign The Wall of Hope.

Get involved

What: American Cancer Relay for Life

When: 6 p.m. Friday, July 14, to 10 a.m. Saturday, July 15

Where: Gresham High School, 1200 N. Main Ave.