Janesville Relay for Life a testament to power of research

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Katherine Krueger
Sunday, July 28, 2013

JANESVILLE--Tonya McGinnis first noticed something felt off when her shirts were not fitting quite right.

When doctors found the swollen lymph node under her arm in 2008, they figured it was an infection. They prescribed antibiotics.

A few months later she was diagnosed with a Stage 3 unknown primary cancer, which they planned to treat as breast cancer. After the diagnosis, she never felt more alone.

It was only after attending her first Relay for Life that she realized just how many survivors, caretakers and families have grappled with the disease, a realization she says helped her make it through that first year.

After that first Relay, McGinnis was hooked.

“That first year was very emotional. I didn't know how many people were touched by cancer,” she said. “I still feel every emotion you can feel in that one night.”

Now, after five years in remission, she feels as if she “can breathe a little” and is involved in planning the annual Rock County event, this year as an honorary survivor.

Cancer survivors always are invited to attend the Relay events, and McGinnis said spending time with long-time survivors gave her hope.

Delores Crook, a lifelong Janesville resident, is one such participant. A 25-year survivor, she counts each new year as a blessing. She also bears the honorary survivor title for this year's event.

When Crook talks with those going through treatment, she finds their modern regimes often are completely different than hers decades ago. She credits the changes to cancer research supported by events such as the Relay.

Because her sister died of cancer four years before Crook was diagnosed, she opted to travel to Houston for her chemotherapy and treatment. Although she was first diagnosed with Stage 1 endometrial cancer, doctors upgraded the diagnosis to Stage 4 when they found cancer in her lymph nodes during surgery.

She does not see too many older cancer survivors turn out at the Relay.

“It doesn't seem like there are many survivors my age unless they've lost someone,” Crook said. “I'm just so thankful to be here so many years later … I thought it was a death sentence.”

Now she does Relay each year with her husband, a 23-year survivor, and daughter, a 9-year breast cancer survivor.

Her daughter told Crook she was her inspiration when she was diagnosed, saying, “You made it, so I can make it.”

Part of McGinnis' recent list of duties to make sure the event runs smoothly was folding the T-shirts ordered for survivors. It broke her heart to fold child-sized shirts, she said, but there were also more shirts than ever for survivors.

“We wouldn't have new knowledge about how to fight this disease without research money coming in,” she said. “Seeing is believing. I want everyone to know what we're doing is working.”

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