Relay for Life: Cancer survivor walks in grief and celebration
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Thursday night, Jim Mejchar grieved with the family and friends of Albert Heinowski, a fellow retired police officer who died of cancer.
Friday night, he will celebrate his own survival through two rounds of the disease.
The honorary survivor for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life will lead a victory lap to start the overnight walk around the track at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis.
Mejchar, 71, will be one of the dozens of survivors decked out in dark purple T-shirts and giving hope to others fighting cancer.
"I learned through all of this that there's no room for negative thoughts," Mejchar said. "Anything you want to do you can do. It's helped me along and in turn I'm able to help other people along.
"Cancer is there but we're going to beat it, and many times we have."
They represent hope and possibility.
At dusk, organizers will light white, paper luminarias placed around the track.
They represent those who fought cancer, and those like Heinowski who lost their battle.
"There are hundreds of them; each with their own special message," Mejchar said. "You look at these bags and these messages, and what's touching is every once in a while you'll see a family gathered around a bag, having a little prayer service."
Those impromptu ceremonies take place each year at the nearly 200 Relay for Life events in Wisconsin and 5,000 across the country.
Dr. Gordon Klatt started the walk for the American Cancer Society in Tacoma, Wash., in 1985. He walked alone for 24 hours, covered 81 miles and raised $27,000.
In 2012, more than 3.5 million people will participate in the overnight outings, and they will raise millions to support prevention programs, research to find a cure for cancer, services for those diagnosed with the disease and their families and the Hope Lodges that provide a home for patients at clinics and hospitals.
While Klatt walked alone, those who join Mejchar will participate as teams of eight to 15. The concept is simple: at least one person from each team will be walking on the track for the entire 10 to 14 hours.
Over three decades, The Relay for Life has become part overnight camp out, part support group and part celebration.
"It creates a great atmosphere for people to come together," said Jill Cardinal, the community relations manager for the American Cancer Society in Wisconsin. "There's a reunion aspect.
"I guess I would say that our longstanding joke is that we feed you, and we make you laugh and we make you cry. The emotions go all over the place."
That will be true collectively for the 300 expected Friday night; and individually for Mejchar.
The honorary survivor will give a short speech before leading the ceremonial first lap.
"I will tell them what my fight was; the reaction in my heart and my head when they told me I had cancer," he shared on Thursday. "Years ago it was the kiss of death. It's a fight, and you're fighting the unknown, but through the relay you help other people who help you."
Those who meet with Mejchar should take time to listen to his story, and his wisdom.
He has worked as a police officer, managed the West Allis-West Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and directed the International Clown Hall of Fame.
He survived skin cancer diagnosed 15 years ago, cognitive heart disease, a severe stroke and prostate cancer. He's undergone 38 bouts of radiation and continuous monitoring for the recurrence of cancer.
At one point, he said, a doctor told him he was one of the "chosen few," one of only 2% of the patients to recover from a stroke as severe as the one he suffered.
"That melted into my brain," Mejchar said. "I vowed to myself that I would never waste another moment. For the last 10 years I've been giving back whenever I can, as much as I can.
"I am a rich man, not money-wise, but as far as the people I'm able to help and connect with."
He plans to be up all night, and to talk to as many people as he can, because, as he said, "cancer doesn't take a holiday."
Upcoming events: The American Cancer Society will host Relay for Life events on Aug. 3 at Waukesha West High School, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Walworth County Fairgrounds and Badger Middle School in West Bend.
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