KAILUA-KONA — Cathy Sugiyama is an inspiration, though it took her years to realize it.

A cancer survivor of 17 years, there was a time the Makua Lani Christian Academy teacher wanted to rid herself of any association with the disease for good.

She had been in remission for years. Not cured, she said, remission. There’s a difference.

“Because once cancer is in your body, that’s what you body does,” she said. “It does the cancer.”

But Sugiyama has been in recovery for years, so healthy, in fact, there was at one time a tinge of the anti-climatic — after fighting so long, when it was over there was almost a melancholy feeling of let-down.

So Sugiyama wanted to wipe her hands of it all, and that meant no longer attending her cancer support group.

“You know,” she remembers telling the group’s organizer. “Maybe I don’t need to go to the support group anymore. And she said, ‘You know, maybe the support group needs you.’”

And so it clicked.

On Saturday during the 22nd annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life Kona at the Old Kona Airport Baseball Park, Sugiyama wore 17 links on her lei of hope — each link represented a year removed. She knew how important the lei was, not just for her. It was for everyone in the throws of the fight. For each person trying to earn one link, two links.

“There is life after cancer,” she said.

The evening started with a survivors’ walk, where people like Sugiyama and caregivers walked around the grassy track. After which, 29 teams followed suit, until 1 a.m. today in the name of raising money for cancer research. The goal was to raise $100,000.

But the message from the survivor’s walk was clear: The fight is winnable.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” said Kat Wilson, of Kona, who was diagnosed last year with neuroendocrine, a rare cancer in the nervous system, about seeing the other survivors with years and years of links on the leis of hope. “It gives you a freshness. It energizes you.”

Around 30 teams took part in the all night event, on par with years past where 700 volunteers, team members and citizens came out. Booths, tents, a band stage and chairs sprawled out around the track, where team members hung out while one or more of their teammates walked. Before it got underway, Paradise Helicopters dropped flowers on the field.

Based on data from assembled by the National Cancer Institute between 2010-2012, nearly 40 percent of all people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.

“Don’t forget to spread the goodness you have,” three-year volunteer Cassandra Varrone, rubbing away tears, told the survivors leading up to the start. “That second chance that you have.

“I’m sorry I’m crying,” she said.

For Lynn Howard, it was a coming out party of sorts, though an emotional one.

Howard was diagnosed with melanoma in 2002. She’s been in remission since around ‘03, but was never one to talk about the experience much. She was 25 at the time, and felt embarrassed by the diagnosis, light years removed from her 20-something peers. But the disease and the fight taught her to forgive, taught her to embrace, and Saturday, after seeing other friends fall to the same battle she fought, she felt it was time to be more open about it all.

“I just feel now is the time to be here,” she said, wiping away tears herself.

“Empowering,” she called the show of support.

“Don’t give up,” she said of the message she wanted to send. “Don’t give up on yourself, don’t give up on life.”



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