Relay for Life is Friday

Maurice Thomas’ big brother, Gordon, died of colon cancer in 2011. This tragedy probably saved Maurice’s life.

“Right before he passed, at Christmas dinner, he told me to get a colonoscopy,” Maurice Thomas said. “I said ‘Nah, that’s OK, I’m only 41.’ He looked at me a couple minutes later, and he made me promise him to go do a colonoscopy.

“Two months after he passed, they found three polyps in me. One was cancerous.”

Thomas is one of the two honorary survivors for this year’s Relay for Life. He said he will bring a message about the importance of early detection.

“If my brother didn’t make me promise, I would have passed away last year,” he said. “It was the size of my thumbnail, and starting to spread.”

Colon cancer is like that, he said; usually there are no symptoms until the cancer has become very serious.

Thomas had surgery in April 2011 at Trinity Regional Medical Center.

“It was supposed to be a four-hour surgery, but it ended up being an eight-hour surgery. My doctor was Laura Miegge. She’s from South America, she’s almost genius,” Thomas said. “I think she’s a godsend to this area.

“She wanted to save me from wearing an ostomy bag the rest of my life,” he added. “She knew the kind of work I do, that I need to lift. … She saved me from wearing an ostomy bag by 2 centimeters, basically.”

Since then, Thomas has been much more careful about his diet. He said his brother became a vegetarian and cut sugar out of his diet after being diagnosed, and lived 18 months longer than doctors said he would.

“Insurance covers a colonoscopy when you’re 50 or older. I think they need to cover it when you’re 40 and older. I got it when I was 41,” he said. “My brother was 45 when he got his in 2006. Cancer has no age limit.”

The other honorary survivor is Claire Wallace, whose battle with cancer began two years ago when she was 12.

She’d had lots of back and stomach pain for six months, when they found it was cancer. She went through one round of chemo from August to December 2011, and had surgery in May and June. They hoped they got it all.

“We followed up in Des Moines, and it had grown exponentially,” said Claire’s mother, Kelli Wallace. “So we tried a very aggressive chemo, that was August through December again.

“That was icky stuff, last August. … She was in the hospital four days for her chemo every three weeks.”

“It was kind of unreal,” Claire Wallace said. “I’d always been a sick child.”

Claire had a heart transplant when she was a baby and was on anti-rejection medication that dampened her immune system.

“I’d had several complications and stuff. But I couldn’t believe it was happening to me,” she said.

Kelli and Lincoln Wallace are both family doctors at Trinity Regional Medical Center, and have seen other families go through this.

“You think after you’ve had the heart transplant, and she’s had some liver complications, that surely you won’t get anything else,” Kelli Wallace said. “That didn’t work.”

Claire’s oncologist sent the family to Boston for some experimental treatments.

“They did a lot of testing on Claire’s tumor, and some different things,” Kelli Wallace said. “That’s going to be the future of chemo.”

Instead of just using the biggest dose possible, the research focused on how to target whatever the tumor responds to best.

Claire Wallace lost all her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes through the treatment, Kelli Wallace said, and every time she was in the hospital she lost weight.

Now, though, it seems the cancer is in remission.

“Now she’s on maintenance chemo, so we do injections twice a week, and she takes an oral chemo every day,” Kelli Wallace said.

She missed about a year and a half of school with all her treatments, so she has a lot of catching up to do.

Claire and Kelli Wallace said it was an honor to be chosen to speak at the Relay, though Claire’s father Lincoln Wallace will likely be the one speaking.

“Claire has been to hell and back. Two years of this is hard stuff at any age, but it’s really hard at 14,” Kelli Wallace said.

The Relay for Life will be held Friday, with teams, survivors and their families coming together to celebrate life.

The goal is 50 teams for the night, said relay chair Craig Schlienz.

After the opening ceremony at 6 p.m., there will be a lap to honor all survivors. Schlienz said there are usually 125 survivors for that. There is also a lap honoring caregivers, and a parade of teams to honor all those who raised funds.

“Then we have various forms of entertainment. Lots of games for kids, the bouncy thing,” Schlienz said. “We’ll have bead laps, so every time people walk a lap they can get a bead, and keep track of how many times they walk around the track.”

During the luminary ceremony at 9:30 p.m., hundreds of lighted paper bags in memory of a lost loved one or in honor of a survivor will line the track, and all the names will be read. Activities will continue until the closing ceremonies at midnight.