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Galax/Carroll Relay for Life raises $87,000

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WITH VIDEO

By Shaina Stockton

HILLSVILLE — More than 250 people gathered at Carroll County High School last Friday and Saturday for the annual Galax-Carroll County Relay for Life benefit walk for the American Cancer Society.

According to the Relay for Life web page, this year’s event included 259 participants and 28 teams. On Monday, Judy Beasley, a coordinator for the walk, confirmed that more than $87,000 was raised this year.

During the opening ceremony on July 25, Beasley explained that the night’s events act as a symbol for a battle against cancer. “Tonight, we come together as a community. We support those fighting cancer, we remember those lost to the disease, and we will fight back together so that one day, no one will ever hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’

“The sun is up at the start of our event. It goes down for a dark period, which symbolizes the diagnosis and the fight. And then the sun rises in the morning, which symbolizes the hope and promise of our recovery.”

This year’s testimony was given by Mark Horton, who fought and has survived an unexpected diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that attacks the plasma cells in bone marrow.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been on this track… it brought back a lot of good memories. I probably ran a couple hundred miles during my years at Carroll County,” he said.

Before his diagnosis, Horton said that his life was more or less perfect. “In 2005, I accepted a position as an aquatic director in Myrtle Beach, S.C. … it was my dream job… and at that point, I was the healthiest person I knew,” Horton said.

Then, in 2011, he started experiencing back pain. “I had beaten myself up over the years, so I though it was from the rigors of the job and getting older, so I ignored it,” he said. But it got worse, and he soon developed pain in his legs, to the point where he had trouble walking.

Finally, he went to his doctor to find out what was wrong. “I got an MRI, and I was at work when I got the call from my doctor,” he said. “And I guess it was after about the sixth or seventh time of asking him, ‘are you sure?’ before it sunk in that I had cancer.”

He described his diagnosis as plasma cell myeloma, which is also known as multiple myeloma. “It has all of the elements of leukemia, lymphoma and bone cancer all rolled into one. The pain in my back was actually the absence of my L-4 vertebra, which had been eaten away,” Horton said.

His only option was to do a stem cell transplant, which would involve harvesting stem cells out of his own bone marrow. “There is no cure, but there is that treatment,” he said. “But the problem was that it would affect my summer season… and I couldn’t have that happen.”

Instead, he opted for nine months of chemotherapy and radiation, which got him through the end of the summer.

“[The transplant] was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It made me a different person,” he said. After the treatment was over, he tried going back to work, but eventually he was faced with a choice between either his career or his life. “So, I chose to move home to my beloved mountains,” he said.

Although he had to say goodbye to his career, he explained that his battle with cancer had given him a new appreciation for what he still had. “I am thankful every single day to be alive, and I’m very thankful every day that I was able to live life to its fullest while I was still healthy,” he said. “I’ve learned that those who are in the most pain are the ones who complain the least. And people who have lost the most are also the most thankful.”

He credited this knowledge to his wife, who struggles in her own battle against multiple sclerosis.

“In closing, I will say let’s remember those who are gone before us, but remember the survivors. They are the ones we can help now. Do everything you can for them while they are here.”

Local survivors lined up to christen the track with the first lap. As the survivors completed their laps, many ran into the arms of their loved ones, and shared smiles and tears of victory.

The next lap was for the caregivers, who walked beside the survivors, just like they did during their battles against cancer.

The third lap was reserved for this year’s teams, and then the track was opened to all participants. The public was invited to join in the evening’s festivities, which continued until the final tally was announced at 1 a.m. on Saturday.

Beside the track, an empty table and chair was placed in remembrance of loved ones who fought and lost their battle against cancer — the names and faces behind the luminaries that lined the track.

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