Cancer survivor continues push to raise money for research

2011 Relay for Life Ann Arbor
What: An annual 24-hour relay to raise money for cancer research. The goal for this event is to raise $100,000 for the American Cancer Society.
Where: Community Park on the campus of Washtenaw Community College, 4800 E. Huron River Drive.
When: Saturday, June 25 starting at 10 a.m., running for 24 hours. Thirty nine teams with 485 participants will have members on the track for the full 24-hour period and are taking pledges. A survivor celebration lap takes place at 10:15 a.m. and, at dusk, a luminaria ceremony will be conducted at the site.
New: Sign up to be part of a Cancer Prevention Study, that will allow the ACS to draw a blood sample from healthy individuals and survey you over a 30-year period to determine cancer tendencies.
Details: Visit online for information.

By Casey Hans
AAPSNews Service

When Amy McConnell visited her doctor in 1994 and had a biopsy on her breast, she could hardly believe her diagnosis. At age 28, McConnell was told she had breast cancer and subsequent surgery showed that she had involvement in two lymph nodes.

McConnell Relay for Life
Amy McConnell, a breast cancer survivor for 17 years, walks in a past Relay for Life. She will walk in the 2011 Relay for Life Ann Arbor on June 25 at Washtenaw Community College. The fundraiser benefits the American Cancer Society and cancer research.

Now 45, the Ann Arbor Preschool & Family Center secretary is celebrating her 17th “birthday” of being cancer-free. She will go to Washtenaw Community College on June 25-26 as part of a Balas Administration Building team walking in the 2011 Relay for Life Ann Arbor, a fundraiser that benefits the American Cancer Society.

The event begins at 10 a.m. June 25 on the college campus on Huron River Drive and runs for 24 hours, where 39 teams, including the Ann Arbor Public Schools team from Balas and two from Pioneer High School, will raise money for breast cancer research.

“When I was diagnosed, I never wanted to know this much about cancer,” she said. “Going through cancer brought a different life knowledge.” She recommends to others facing cancer to “try to have a good outlook – cancer’s not contagious. Truly learn how to laugh. It will help you heal and mend.”

The hardest part of her cancer diagnosis and journey was the loss of her hair as she began six months of chemotherapy.

“That was probably the most traumatic,” she said. Once she realized her  3- and 5-year-old daughters were looking to her reaction to her health, she picked herself up and moved ahead. “Every day, I had to decide it was going to be a good day and I wouldn’t cry in front of my girls,” she said. “

Laughter and support of friends and family got her through, she said. “Seventeen years ago, a lot of people didn’t even want to use the word ‘cancer’, she said. “It was a secret. The only way I could deal with it was to make light of it. It helped as I went along. I had to minimize it – it probably helped me to deal with it and heal faster.”

McConnell has two daughters from her first marriage and another daughter with her husband, Phil McConnell, who is retired from the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Amy McConnell said she did genetic testing before having her third child to determine whether she carried a gene predisposing her to breast cancer. She does not have the gene, so said she still does not know why her cancer developed.

That is part of the reason she walks in the Relay for Life each year: to raise money for cancer research. This is her first year walking in Ann Arbor; in previous years, the Whitmore Lake resident has participated in Brighton’s Relay for Life in Livingston County.

Her older daughters are now 20 and 22. “They do the Relays with me – they’re my biggest fans,” said McConnell, who is a Huron High School graduate. And her younger daughter, who is 9, started coming to Relays with mom when she was a newborn. “She grew up knowing mommy was sick at one point and is better now,” she said. “We brought her up knowing what was going on.”

The 2011 Relay for Life Ann Arbor has already raised about $63,000 toward its $100,000 goal and that number is updated real time on the ACS website. “We’re very much on target to meet or surpass our goal in Ann Arbor this year,” said Alex Garnepudi, an American Cancer Society staff partner for the Ann Arbor event and also an Ann Arbor resident and University of Michigan graduate.

The Relay for Life Ann Arbor has taken place since 2005, after a larger Washtenaw County Relay was split into smaller community events. Garnepudi said the local approach is important. “What’s really special is that Relay comes to each community,” he said. “We want each of these communities to be able to fight back (against cancer) while keeping their local feel.”

Ann Arbor’s is one of 5,166 Relays held around the world in what has become the American Cancer Society’s signature event. It was started in 1985 by Dr. Gordon Klatt, who took pledges and walked a track in Tacoma, Washington to raise money for cancer research.

McConnell said the Relay gives the community a way to give pause and reflect. “It’s setting aside the time to say, yes I’m good, I’ve moved on. But it deserves its due. It’s a time to gather together and honor those who we have lost or those who have survived.”

On a related note, two transportation staff members from the Washtenaw Intermediate School District are working on two quilts that are being raffled by McConnell to raise additional money that will be donated to the Balas Relay team. Contact her at the preschool at for ticket information.

Amy McConnelll is walking with a team from the Ann Arbor Public Schools Balas Administration Building. The team’s fundraising site is here. McConnell’s personal page can be found here.

This the the second year the Balas team has participated in the Relay for Life. They have 19 people signed up but are still looking for others to join the team, especially for people to walk in the early morning hours between 1-5 a.m., said Thelma Monroe, coordinator of the Balas team. Contact her via e-mail.

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