KRISTINA ORREGO/Alachua County Today
Bill and Joyce Whitelock clown around for participants at the Relay for Life event held at the High Springs Civic Center.
HIGH SPRINGS –- Firefighters, high school students and community members came out to the field at the High Springs Civic Center Friday for this year’s Relay for Life event from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m.
The track, outlined by white paper bags marked with the names of cancer victims or those currently struggling with cancer, was the path that participants continuously walked around, while lemonade and sno cones were served at tables.
Those who beat cancer proudly donned purple shirts with “Survivor” written on the back.
The event began with the survivor lap, specifically for those in purple to walk together to celebrate their victory over cancer, according to the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life website.
Next was the Caregiver Lap, set aside to recognize those who had taken care of cancer patients.
The opening lap, the third, invited all teams to walk together.
The last part of the evening was the Luminaria Ceremony, where the candles inside each of the bags around the track were lit up.
“The ceremony is actually a time of honoring the people who have fought the battle and lost or are still fighting the battle and actually won,” said Vicki Cox, one of the co-event coordinators for High Springs Relay for Life and also a co-chair for the ceremony. “It’s done in honor and memory.”
Patti Lamneck, a co-chair of the ceremony, took the stage to explain more about the ceremony. As she mentioned different groups of people who might have been impacted by cancer, those in the crowd snapped glow sticks.
“It makes you realize how widespread cancer is,” Cox said. “Usually at the end of that little section, everybody has snapped their glow sticks.”
The event is understandably very emotional for many who participate.
Kathy Lowder doesn’t want anyone to feel bad for her.
Even at the slightest frown in response to the 54-year-old’s struggle with breast cancer, she says, “Don’t be sad.”
Lowder, who was present at Friday’s event, shared her story at last year’s Relay for Life in Newberry.
She wasn’t worried the first time she felt a hard lump in her left breast in early spring of 2014. Like all other things in her life, she just knew she needed to do something about it without feeling sorry for herself.
Her primary doctor suggested she get a mammogram and subsequent ultrasound. They determined it to be a hardened mammary gland and that her chances of being cancer free were 99 to 1.
She was fine, they concluded.
Nevertheless, her doctor told her she should get a lumpectomy on the off chance it might be malignant, and she had it removed on June 27 at North Florida Regional Medical Center.
On July 8, at 3:38 p.m., Lowder was home watching the FIFA World Cup when her doctor called.
The resulting pathology report from the surgery showed that the lump was an infiltrating adenocarcinoma – a cancerous tumor that was estrogen and progesterone positive.
He told her she would need to have her entire left breast removed.
She said she didn’t hear much of what he said after that – just a slew of medical terms that didn’t make sense at the time. But she refused to worry.
She decided the best approach was to get as informed as she could about her cancer so she could be prepared for whatever was next, she said.
“This is what I was dealt – let’s go ahead and deal with it, let’s get the answers that I need,” she said. “I always raised my kids – you cannot make a decision unless you make an informed decision.”
“It wasn’t what I expected, but I have two choices,” she said. “I either let cancer kick my butt, or I kick butt. And so butt kicking started to do.”
She said she told each of her family members individually, and each one was supportive of her.
“I would say that’s probably the toughest thing to do, is look your loved one in the eye and tell them,” she said.
While she was under heavy anesthesia, Dr. Bruce Brient of the Surgical Group of Gainesville, performed the bilateral mastectomy on August 11. Next, Dr. Jason Rosenberg, a reconstructive surgeon, replaced the tissue that was removed with fat from her abdominal area, she said.
Lowder said she arrived at the hospital that morning at 5:30 a.m. The work wasn’t totally finished until about 10 p.m.
A scar running from hipbone to hipbone is one of the many reminders of the surgery that saved her life.
The next six weeks were spent in complete recovery mode. As someone who is active and doesn’t like to ask for help, she said she struggled with not doing much.
“That’s very difficult for me,” she said. “So I’ve had to learn to listen to my body better as to what I can handle and what I can’t.”
She said she walked with a shuffle and stayed home in her pajamas.
She couldn’t take a shower without either her daughter or her husband’s help.
She couldn’t reach up to grab anything because of how delicate the upper half of her body was.
She couldn’t lie in bed to sleep, so she slept in a recliner for months.
“At first, we couldn’t get me to prop up and stay up, so we had to put a box under the recliner to keep me in place,” she said.
“The ones where you push your feet – well that all affects your abdomen, and somebody would have to help do that.”
Despite of all of this, her determination never faltered.
“You can’t sit around and wonder ‘Why me?’” she said. “’Poor me. Why does this have to happen?’ It doesn’t matter why it happened.”
Her cancer diagnosis spurred an entire lifestyle change – trading her regular Coca-Colas for water and adding power walking for exercise. She has lost over 60 pounds since the beginning of her journey.
“On August 1, I snuck one [Coca-Cola] because there was one in the fridge, and that was it,” she said. “I haven’t picked up one since. I even joined a gym.”
Lowder said she is continuing to participate in events for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and supporting Relay for Life.
As someone who also enjoys hosting foreign exchange students, she said she was eager to become well enough to open up her home again.
Treating them as her own kids, she’s opened her home to two Brazilian students, one from Germany and one from Norway.
One of them, 19-year-old Matheus Soares, was tragically murdered on February 2015 in Brazil. She said he is her guardian angel.
“I had made him a promise that I would kick cancer’s butt, and so I’m trying to fulfill that promise.”
# # #