One word can change a life forever, and for about 1 in every 100 college students, that word is “cancer.” With all of its triumphs and defeats, living with cancer impacts everyone in their own way. For college students, the theme of these stories centers around adjusting to college while adjusting to cancer or being a survivor. At universities across the country, including Virginia Tech, cancer survivors use their experiences to serve those still living with the disease, honor survivors and caregivers, and celebrate life by working with Relay for Life.
Relay for Life is an annual fundraising event in which college students participate in a relay race around the Drillfield among other entertainment events to celebrate the lives of those who have been affected by cancer. Students participate in mini-fundraising opportunities during the months leading up to the big event. Hundreds of committee members have worked to orchestrate the event since September 2020.
The proceeds from Relay for Life go to the American Cancer Society, which funds cancer research and programs that aim to end cancer. Being the biggest collegiate Relay in the country, Virginia Tech has funded a sizable chunk of the ACS’ mission, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
Executive board members for the Survivor/Caregiver Committee, sophomore Collin Jessie and senior Erin Nihill, had the role of honoring the VT Relay survivors and caregivers while also being cancer survivors themselves. Both got involved with Relay before being diagnosed, but their motives for being part of it changed after their diagnoses.
“When I got diagnosed with cancer, I was coming into Virginia Tech and thought it would be a cool opportunity to raise money and fight for something that affected me a lot and also help people in the same position I was in,” Jessie said.
Nihill said that being a survivor herself added a new layer of passion to her work as a member of the Relay executive board.
This year, Jessie, Nihill and all Relay executives organized the event that meaningfully honored the lives affected by cancer while adhering to COVID-19 restrictions.
“One of the biggest things for our committee is direct contact, like going to hospitals and such, which we obviously couldn’t do,” Nihill said. “As execs and as a team, it was always about finding different ways to do stuff and still have an impact.”
However difficult the hurdles and challenges were to work around, executives still came up with adjusted solutions to honor the survivors and caregivers of the Virginia Tech community, such as the survivor/caregiver drive-through. Another outreach opportunity that their committee participated in was sending virtual care packages to hospitals nationally.
Among all the fundraising and recruitment, there was a defining moment for both Jessie and Nihill that encapsulated why they relayed. For Nihill, who was on the Finance Committee last year, her moment was during the big fundraising reveal.
“At the end of the event, we were the ones who held up the big number of how much money we raised, and that was one of the big moments when I felt that impact, holding up the number that said $375,000,” Nihill said. “You kind of think: ‘Wow, this is it.’”
Jessie recalled one of his most impactful moments with Relay so far on last year’s mission committee.
“We put on this thing called the Holiday Hope Drive, where we made a bunch of little goodie bags for caregivers,” Jessie said. “In general, we are always pushing for the survivors, but also we have to think about the people supporting them. I could not have gotten through my entire treatment without my mom; she was the most important person to me and got me through everything, so we wanted to do something nice for the caregivers. My exec and I delivered them to Roanoke, and that was one of the moments that really stuck with me. We’re actually making a difference; we’re seeing how people’s lives are impacted in a positive way because of our actions.”
The Survivor/Caregiver Committee worked on a personal level with those impacted by cancer. Their work consisted of reaching out to cancer survivors, providing resources for them and their caregivers, and many other supportive services.
“Knowing what I went through and what my family went through, I knew I could take my experiences and use it,” Nihill said. “Being aware of that impact personally, it gives me confidence that I could be doing the same for someone else.”
Everyone can feel sympathy for cancer patients and survivors, but there is a special element of empathy only fellow survivors can understand.
“It’s very rewarding,” Jessie said. “I went through cancer and I get to meet people who have their own personal story and different types of cancer, but we all share one common thought. It is a trauma we can all recognize and understand each other through that. That is one of the most rewarding things, that I can connect with someone who I’ve never met a day in my life, but (we) have that special bond just because of what we went through. Relay is a beautiful thing to be able to connect with those people, but also still help people across the country. That’s really special to me.”
Nihill reflected on the part Relay for Life has played in her time as a Virginia Tech student.
“(Relay) has been one of my favorite parts of college,” Nihill said. “Unfortunately, everyone has a story with cancer, but fortunately, it really does connect you. Being on exec, being on committee, everyone is there for the same reason and so passionate about it.”
Last weekend, Jessie, Nihill and hundreds of other Hokies came together for a greater cause April 9 and 10: to end cancer once and for all. As Nihill puts it, “We’re all moving towards the same goal, and that’s an incredibly impactful thing.”