CARIBOU, Maine — As cancer survivors walked the first lap of the American Cancer Society’s Aroostook County Relay for Life on Friday evening, tears lingered in the eyes of Gerry Martin of Caribou. They weren’t tears of joy because someone he loved was walking proudly around the athletic track – they were tears of sorrow for someone who wasn’t.
“I’d give anything to see her out there taking that survivor’s lap,” the 70-year-old Ohio native said of his mother, Camilla Martin, who died 50 years ago of ovarian cancer. “If she had lived, she’d be out there in her best dress and her high heels wearing a smile as wide as a rainbow. But most cancers back then were a death sentence, unless you had a lot of money for doctors, and we didn’t. “
“I’ve served in a war and I saw a lot of conflict there,” he continued, his voice quivering, “But nothing I’ve been through was as hard as the day that they told me my mom was gone.”
It was the memory of his mother that prompted Martin, who recently moved to The County, to join an estimated 1,000 other people at the Caribou High School track and field complex for the relay, which began on Friday evening and wrapped up at 10 a.m. Saturday. Despite the outdoor event held on a chilly evening, more than 69 teams made up of 800 individuals had preregistered for the event, which is a major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. The County relay has grown significantly in the past few years. Organizers said that last year’s event raised $147,000, up from $44,000 in 2009.
Miles Williams of Caribou, a member of the local Relay For Life steering committee, proudly held up the balloon arch so that cancer survivors, clad in purple T-shirts, could walk beneath it and announce how many years they had been cancer free. One young participant was diagnosed soon after birth and was carried around the track, and one of the older participants used a walker during the survivors lap. One survivor even came from North Carolina. The track was lined with luminaria, bags illuminated by candles, bearing the names and pictures of those who successfully fought the disease and those who lost the battle.
Walkers taking the survivor lap included Zach Cote, who will be a senior at Limestone Community School in the fall. Cote led the way with his prosthetic leg after losing his limb at age 15 to a rare childhood cancer. He formed a team with friends, family members and Jennifer Poitras, a Title I reading teacher at his school, who also is a cancer survivor. Poitras raised close to $5,000 for the American Cancer Society going into the event.
Brent Esancy, an employee at MMG Insurance in Presque Isle, also walked the survivor’s lap. He beat urethral cancer last September. Employees from MMG made up three of the teams at the Relay For Life. As a survivor, Esancy said Friday evening, his ears “perk up” when he hears anything about cancer.
“I am very interested in helping fund research and helping others with the disease,” he said, crediting his “great doctors” for helping him become cancer free. “This is the first time I’ve ever taken part in this, and I had no idea this event was as big as it is right now. This is amazing, and great to see.”
Loren King of Mars Hill, who overcame testicular cancer earlier this year, also was walking for the first time. He was deemed cancer-free after surgery in February, and he vowed on Friday evening to take part in the event every year.
Teams of people walked or ran around the track all night, with each team having at least one member on the track at all times to represent the fact that cancer never sleeps. After Gerald Martin watched the survivors make that first lap, he turned to go home.
It was his first time attending the event, but not the first time that he has done something publicly to honor his mother.
“When I was about 8 years old,” he recalled, “I snuck some food coloring out of the kitchen and poured it into my mother’s birdbath. I colored all of the water in it red. She came out and she was just furious with me for a few minutes, but then she just broke down and laughed. I can still see her like that. Once a year on her birthday, I pour red food coloring in my own bird bath. I hope that somewhere, she’s getting a kick out of it.”