Family travels full circle for cancer relay

VIDEO: We're winning the fight, say cancer survivors

Cancer survivors Sondra Holliday, Dylan Walsh and his family share optimism about the fight to end cancer at the annual Relay for Life fundraiser at Mount Tahoma High on Sunday, June 12, 2016.
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Cancer survivors Sondra Holliday, Dylan Walsh and his family share optimism about the fight to end cancer at the annual Relay for Life fundraiser at Mount Tahoma High on Sunday, June 12, 2016.

Joyce Walsh’s family was one of those that had never been touched by cancer.

Still, that didn’t keep her from having them participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life 25 years ago.

“I started when I was 17, and my mom kind of forced me to do it,” said Joyce’s son, Matt. The University Place family has represented every year since.

The now-worldwide fundraiser was started in 1985 by Tacoma doctor Gordon Klatt.

This year’s Tacoma iteration began at noon Saturday at Mount Tahoma High School and finished a day later. More than 135 teams made up of cancer survivors and their allies kept a runner or walker on the track for the full 24 hours.

Organizers expected to raise $600,000 this year.

The Walsh family and their friends raised $31,000 of that themselves. But the event matters much more to them today than when they first started.

In 2002 Matt’s son Dylan was diagnosed with stage four Burkitt lymphoma just days before he turned 2 years old.

Though nothing prepares a parent for the shock of a cancer diagnosis, the Walshes were able to draw on the network they had built at Relay For Life.

“We had a support system that was absolutely amazing from the very start,” Dylan’s mother Cindy Walsh said Saturday.

At the time of Dylan’s diagnosis, survival rates were about 75 percent for Burkitt, Matt said.

“Eleven years prior to that we had met another boy who had the same cancer and it was a 5 percent chance of survival,” Matt said.

Today, that survival rate has improved to 80-90 percent, according to the Cancer Society.

Dylan went through eight rounds of chemotherapy and is now a healthy 15-year-old student at Curtis Junior High School. He has no signs of cancer.

On Saturday, Dylan led off the survivors lap by carrying the banner, something he’s done since he was a tyke.

“He started carrying that banner when he couldn’t see over it,” grandmother Joyce said.

For the Walsh family the relay has come full circle.

“The money we raise here goes for research and development, and if we wouldn’t have had that he would have had a lesser chance,” Joyce said of Dylan.

“We did it because that’s what you do. It’s a good cause,” Cindy said. But, “It made it a completely different thing once it hit our family.

“We’re thankful we did it for so long,” she said “Because we saved him.”

Though Dylan has no memories of his precancer life he knows why his family is so dedicated to the event.

“If this event wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be here either,” Dylan said.

And he knows people who, like his family did before he was born, work to raise money for strangers.

“They do this for people they don’t even know,” Dylan said.

Dylan speaks on cancer fundraising around the country and raised $1,000 of his family’s effort.

Another cancer survivor participating Saturday was Sondra Holliday, 65, of University Place.

Festooned with Mardi Gras beads and a purple mask, Holliday danced from the seat of her wheelchair during the survivors lap.

“I get uplifted,” Holliday said. “But what really breaks my heart is seeing the little kids (with cancer.)”

Holliday was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. She kicked it with chemotherapy and radiation.

But in 2007 she was diagnosed with colon cancer. Treatment for that had side effects that affected her nervous system.

“I’m cancer-free and living with my side effects,” Holliday said, sitting in her chair after the lap.

Another survivor spending the weekend at the event was Cliff Colon, 37, of Tacoma. He was pushing his two children, Xavier, 6, and Gia, 9 months, around the track.

When he was a 19-year-old Pacific Lutheran University student, Colon unexpectedly began to lose weight.

A rare form of testicular cancer was creating a grapefruit-size tumor on the membrane of his heart.

“That was the day before I turned 20,” Colon recalled of his diagnosis. “The following day I started chemo.”

The chemotherapy and surgery worked, but damaged his reproductive system.

“I wasn’t supposed to have a family,” Colon said. He and wife Sommer used in vitro fertilization to conceive Gia. But Xavier was a “miracle baby,” naturally conceived.

“That’s why I do the survivors lap with him,” Colon said. “Because I was told I wasn’t going to be able to.”

Colon said he was too young at the time of his treatment to realize how close to death he had come.

“It was a big wake-up call on what your priorities are in life, who you are friends are, family,” Colon said. “Your life can be taken away at any time. Even if you’re a healthy 20-year-old in college.”

This weekend, as he walked the track with his scars and his family, he served as a symbol.

“People can look at you as a hope that they can (survive) too.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor