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Relay walkers brave the elements for cancer awareness

Members of Boy Scout Troop 963 and Cub Scout Pack 963 hold onto an American flag during the opening ceremonies of the Relay for Life of Clayton County Friday.

Members of Boy Scout Troop 963 and Cub Scout Pack 963 hold onto an American flag during the opening ceremonies of the Relay for Life of Clayton County Friday.

— Ziller Foldenauer considers herself to be lucky.

Foldenauer, 55, of Jonesboro, was diagnosed with the ductal carcinoma in situ form of breast cancer four years ago following a mammogram. This is a form of cancer found in a woman’s milk ducts.

The diagnosis was a surprise to Foldenauer because there is no family history of breast cancer, she said.

Foldenauer had a mastectomy, underwent chemotherapy and — despite a relapse two years ago — is now cancer free.

She said she feels fortunate because her cancer was discovered early.

“The first time, it wasn’t even in a stage yet – it wasn’t considered as a stage – so I was very lucky,” Foldenauer said. “When it came back, it was in Stage 1. I consider myself very blessed.”

Foldenauer was one of more than 100 cancer survivors who kicked off the Relay for Life of Clayton County at Southern Crescent Stadium Friday.

Hundreds of survivors, caregivers, relatives and supporters braved strong winds, unusually cold temperatures and eventually rain for three and a half hours to participate in the annual event, which raises funds for cancer research.

For many people, the motivation for participating in the event was personal. Either they had battled cancer or they knew someone who’d gone through it.

Jonesboro resident Ella Kate Washington participates in the relay each year to be an inspiration to others diagnosed with cancer.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 37 and it had already spread to her lymph nodes by the time it was discovered. Women are typically recommended to begin undergoing mammogram exams at 40 to detect breast cancer.

Washington said she underwent a mastectomy, a lumpectomy, radiation treatments and five years of follow-up treatments to rid herself of the cancer.

It has been 16 years since her diagnosis and she is now cancer-free.

“Every year, when I can come here to walk, it reminds me that God has allowed me to live another year because there are a lot of people who were diagnosed when I was diagnosed and they’re gone,” Washington said.

Washington said expressions of hope for the future spread over the faces of newly-diagnosed cancer patients when she tells them how long it’s been since she was diagnosed.

“It’s just like they light up,” she said.

For Foldenauer and Washington, lining up for the survivor’s walk at the beginning of the relay was a surreal moment. The survivors walked that first lap while the Destiny Child’s song, “Survivor,” was played for them.

“I almost can’t put it into words — it was a very good feeling inside and it was overwhelming,” said Foldenauer, who was participating in her first Relay for Life.

Washington later added, “It’s a blessing. We’re sorta like spokespeople for so many people.”

But there were some participants who came to the relay to honor loved ones who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. At least a handful of high-profile officials in the county, including state Sens. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) and Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale), Commissioner Shana Rooks and Solicitor General Tasha Mosley, participated in the walk.

Rooks revealed to participants that she too had a personal motivation for participating.

“This event is very personal to me because I lost my mom to cancer nine years ago, so shout out to the survivors and shout out to the family members who are there for you,” Rooks said.

Sharon Foster of East Point said while she has not had cancer, at least 11 of her relatives have battled the disease. She carried an American flag on about a 10-foot pole around the track to recognize the relay’s “I Pledge Allegiance to a Cure” theme. Foster is an adaptive physical education teacher for several Clayton County schools in the panhandle area.

“We’re supporting people who are in the middle of having cancer,” she said.

Among her family members who’ve had cancer, Foster said her mother, Sibyl Brown, was closest to her heart as she walked around the track. Brown died from lung cancer more than a decade ago at 71, despite never having been a smoker.

“Well, she’s my mom but it was just such a surprise for her to have lung cancer because she never smoked,” Foster said.

Conservative estimates put the amount of money raised by the Clayton County relay at about $55,000, which is little more than half the county’s $100,000 goal, said Deidre Anderson, community manager for the American Cancer Society’s South Atlantic Division.

Anderson said the inclement weather played a role in why the number was so low. Teams turned in the money they had raised when they arrived at the event, but the strong winds and looming rain clouds scared away other participants.

“We had several teams who didn’t show up because of the weather so there is still a lot of money out there that we haven’t counted yet,” Anderson said.