Cancer has touched many lives. Chances are you’ve have had a friend, family member or acquaintance who has been diagnosed, and yet you may not have given thought to lending your time to finding a cure. That’s where Relay for Life comes in. Relay for Life takes place in cities around the country and around the world, including Tacoma, and raises funds via teams who run or walk a relay for hours on end—usually 6 to 24 hours continuously with members of the team rotating so no one person is continuously running or walking. Funds raised go toward researching a cure for cancer.

oly orthoAnd yet who joins in these events? The fact is—anyone can. Participants are cancer survivors, family members or those driven by passion to join in. Here’s the story of just two local participants and why they decided to get involved.

Pat Flynn

Pat Flynn has been involved with what is now known as Relay for Life in Tacoma since its beginning. She first heard of Dr. Gordy Klatt’s mission to raise money for cancer research in 1985, which was also the first year the event was held.

Pat heard about the event because she was one of Dr. Klatt’s patients. Although the first Relay for Life, held on the University of Puget Sound track, wasn’t quite the event we know today, Pat attended…twice.

Pat Flynn
Pat Flynn is a long-time volunteer with Relay for Life. Photo courtesy: Pat Flynn

“I knew the event was going on, but really had no intention of going. However, around 10:00 p.m. that night, I went over to the track myself to see how things were going. When I got there, I found the gates locked, but still saw Dr. Klatt and a few people who’d paid to walk with him in there.”

Pat then went back home, but sure enough, something brought her back.

“I don’t know what it was, but something kept drawing me back to the track,” she says. “I went there again, this time around 1 a.m. At this point in my life, I was pretty well connected because of my job doing public relations work with the Tacoma School District. I called up the News Tribune and told them they were missing one heck of a story. They then told me I was crazy to think they’d send someone out at one in the morning. However, they did send a photographer and reporter out around 6 a.m.”

The next week, Dr. Klatt called Pat to share his vision with her. He said he wanted to create an event where teams came together to raise money to fight cancer. He knew Pat would be a great fit because of her relationships with the school district contacts and those she knew in the PTA. The year after that, Willie Stewart, an administrator with the school district, also joined the Relay for Life committee. Willie brought in even more people for the cause.

Tacoma Relay For Life
Dr. Gordy Klatt and two other walkers at the first 24 hour event. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Relay For Life

“The Tacoma schools played a huge part in getting Relay for Life started,” explains Pat.

Within a few years, the American Cancer Society voted to make Relay for Life its signature event. This step found Pat becoming a trainer for the Relay for Life, touring nationally, and showing other teams in cities across America how to hold successful events.

When asked what Relay for Life truly means to her, Pat answers, “I love being a part of this special group of world-wide volunteers who are working hard to wipe out this disease that has taken so many lives. When researchers come out with new findings that were made possible by the money made from the relay, it fills me with pride.”

Debbie Otten

Debbie Otten is a medical assistant at Northwest Medical Specialties in Tacoma in the oncology unit. The Relay for Life has been a source of inspiration and learning since she’s been involved. Before moving to Tacoma in 2011, Debbie worked at San Leandro Hospital in the Bay Area of California. It was here she got her first taste of what Relay for Life was all about.

Relay for Life Tacoma
Walkers ready to start the 24-hour Relay for life. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Relay for Life

“Even though I didn’t work in the oncology unit, or even see many patients while working in the Central Supply and Utensils Department, I still was on a relay team. It felt great to volunteer and help where I could. Cancer did show its face to me briefly. My father was diagnosed in August and passed in November. It wasn’t until 2011 when I moved to Tacoma that cancer really touched and affected me. Along with my move north, I went back to school to become a medical assistant. After completing my coursework, I started my work in the oncology unit of Northwest Medical Specialties.”

Being there through patients’ diagnoses, treatments and what follows has made a deep impact on Debbie. She says this has made her a much better volunteer for the event.

“It almost works both ways. Seeing the patients receive the news, being there for them, and letting them know it’s okay to be human has helped me in my job and as a volunteer. I appreciate the fact that I have a deeper level of empathy. Over the years of being involved in Relay for Life, I’ve become a team captain for our team at the hospital. Gathering stories of kindness, hope, and inspiration, bringing them to meetings and events, and sharing them has been an amazing source of joy. Being able to cheer on the survivors I’ve met while they take their laps at the Relay for Life is something I look forward to every year.

To learn more about the Relay For Life, both the cause and events, click here

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