The American Cancer Society has selected Mary Ann Jacob to serve as honorary chair and Jim Zarifis as honorary caregiver for this year’s Relay For Life of Newtown. The tenth Newtown event will begin during the afternoon of Saturday, May 31, and continue during the overnight, into Sunday, June 1, at Newtown High School.
“Here in Newtown, funds raised by our Relay For Life event are making an impact on so many lives,” said Ms Jacob. “From making possible the vital American Cancer Society programs and services that support those in our community facing a diagnosis, to life-changing cancer research and medical discovery, to advocacy for access to quality health care for everyone affected by cancer, the money raised through Relay For Life of Newtown is helping further the vision of a world with less cancer and more birthdays. I am proud to unite with the American Cancer Society to finish the fight.”
Ms Jacob told The Newtown Bee that she has always been aware of Relays For Life, but especially in Newtown because of how huge the event has been and how many people participate.
“When it comes close to Relay time, you start hearing that every single person is contributing and going to Relay,” she said. “It’s an amazing townwide effort for a really wonderful cause that makes a positive difference in people’s lives like mine.”
Ms Jacob recalled having a routine mammogram five years ago, which came back clear, but then discovering a lump a short time later.
“People told me not to worry because I just had a mammogram, but I knew right from the get-go that it wasn’t going to be fine,” she said. “I consulted with a breast surgeon who immediately sent me for an ultrasound. And typically, the radiologist reports back to your doctor, but she said that there’s a problem — this has to come out.”
By the time her scheduled lumpectomy arrived two weeks later, the tumor had doubled in size.
“The diagnosis was triple negative breast cancer which is very aggressive with a much higher mortality rate. Even after the surgery, my survival [projection] was only 80 percent,” Ms Jacob said. Once the surgery healed enough, she went on a course of eight rounds of “heavy-hitter chemo,” followed by nearly seven weeks of radiation.
Ms Jacob said throughout her cancer experience she benefited from the advice of many people who came out or sought her out to provide support - something she immediately began doing for others even during her own recovery.
Her oncologist, who has since sadly succumbed to lung cancer, advised Ms Jacob to pick up and move on following her treatments.
“You can’t let this define you for the rest of your life,” she said. “You have a choice when you get that diagnosis to drown in self pity, but I’m the type of person who wants to take charge and find a solution.”
Caregiver To A Son
Jim Zarifis recalled that he had lost a few relatives to cancer. But he never considered his son, James, who was 11 years old at the time, was suffering from anything beyond the aftereffects of a Lyme disease diagnosis, when the youngster started getting nauseous and throwing up every morning nearly 12 years ago.
“On September 28, 2002, after six months of suffering with nausea and vomiting, my son was finally diagnosed with a golf ball-sized brain tumor,” he said, his voice hitching with the memory as Mr Zarifis chatted with The Bee.
Things moved quickly once the diagnosis was made. A surgeon flew in from Philadelphia for the 12-hour procedure to remove the tumor. A few hours after that, young James had to go back into surgery to relieve pressure that was building up on his brain as a result of the prolonged operation.
After a day of recovery, Mr Zarifis saw his son lose all functionality on his left side.
“He became paralyzed and was in pediatric ICU at Westchester medical Center,” Mr Zarifis said. “We were living out of the back of the car for six weeks.”
The next few months saw a slow recovery finally getting some traction as his son started regaining mobility.
“But there were still a lot of speech and motion challenges,” he said. A short time later, his son began 30 rounds of radiation treatments to his head, along with 18 additional rounds to his spine. He also endured eight rounds of chemotherapy.
“It was very devastating. We had 24/7 care for him at the house, with speech and physical therapists coming in to help him recover,” Mr Zarifis said. “He also had problems eating, he took in most of his nourishment from an IV.”
Mr Zarifis was grateful for his employer’s accommodations, he said, which permitted him to pitch in alongside his wife and children through the process.
“I’d schedule my work day around his care,” he said. “At first, for two days every six weeks, Jim had to be admitted overnight at the hospital.”
The treatments also contributed to young Jim getting both osteoporosis, and osteonecrosis in his hip.
“I literally had to carry him because we didn’t want him trying to walk on it,” Mr Zarifis said.
By January 2004, most of his son’s treatments were over, but it took five years for young Jim to regain the level of energy he maintained before his diagnosis.
Today, Jim is a relatively healthy and happy 23-year-old, but 11 years ago at 13, the young survivor served as the honorary chair for Newtown’s first local Relay For Life.
He plans to return to Newtown this year to honor his dad and mom, Elizabeth, as well as younger sister Michelle and brother Steven for all of their support through his recovery process.
Event Details Developing
The 2014 Newtown Relay For Life of Newtown is being held at Newtown High School’s Blue & Gold Stadium. It will kick off with a special Survivors Lap after the opening ceremony at 6 pm, a moving experience honoring those who have defeated cancer.
For the event’s first special lap, survivors along with their caregivers will walk the opening lap together, unified in victory and hope, while the rest of the event’s participants surround the track to cheer them on.
The world’s largest grassroots fundraising movement, Relay For Life mobilizes communities throughout the country to celebrate people who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost, and provide participants with an opportunity to fight back against the disease.
Relay For Life events are held overnight as individuals and teams camp out at an athletic track with the goal of keeping at least one team member on the track at all times. Teams do most of their fundraising prior to the event, but some teams also hold creative fundraisers at their event campsites.
The event is open to the general public for free until midnight.
Members of the Relay For Life of Newtown committee this year include Chris Farrington, Michelle Babyak, Lynda Russo, Cheryl Jablonowski, John Moore, Jim Zarifis, Michelle Zarifis, Gina Long, Matt Barra, Brian Gregory, Lynn Wiener, John Voket, Helen Brickfield.
Cancer survivors or caregivers who would like to take part in the Relay For Life of Newtown and related caregiver and survivors’ activities should call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345.
The event welcomes the public until midnight with no admission charge. Visit relayforlife.org/newtownct for all the pre-Relay events, activities and fundraisers - to form a team - or to learn about numerous sponsorship opportunities, or visit the Newtown Relay Facebook page.