Thousands gathered from around the county Friday evening for the city’s 2012 Relay for Life event at Lincolnton High School’s Von Ray Harris Field to raise money for cancer research and cheer on the many local lives and their stories of survival.
Following the opening ceremony, hundreds of survivors donned in purple “I am Hope” shirts took the track. While some proudly walked without any help, others still weak from their disease were accompanied by caregivers and family members and used walkers and wheelchairs to complete the lap.
The Times-News spoke with three survivors including one breast cancer survivor and two others still fighting for their lives.
Jean Funderburk, 56, of Lincolnton, has been in breast cancer remission for two years now following two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
While she noted that she always attended the yearly Relay for Life event prior to being diagnosed with stage three of the disease, the ceremony now holds different meaning for her.
“It’s always emotional,” she said.
Funderburk continues to undergo semi-annual checkups and mammograms and will never forget the words her doctor uttered once she had beaten her cancer.
“He said, ‘Go live, and be happy,’” she said.
For 27-year-old Johnathan Beam, the words “cancer-free” have yet to be thrown his way. Beam was diagnosed with colon cancer “by accident,” he said, at age 25 after visiting the doctor for a wrist injury.
“Before I left, I mentioned I was tired, and so they checked my iron levels,” he said.
After the pills doctors gave him to increase his iron weren’t curing his exhaustion, both Beam and medical authorities alike knew something was wrong. However, cancer was the last thing on everyone’s mind.
“Doctors kept telling me I was too young to have cancer,” Beam said.
He and his wife Lindsay, an English teacher at West Lincoln High School, had only been married two years when the tragic news struck.
“We were just so young,” she said.
Only three months after Beam started chemotherapy, he walked his first Relay for Life survivor lap. Ever since then, the couple has been volunteering at the yearly event with the Rebels fundraising team.
Although Beam’s one-year colonoscopy follow-up was clear, he continues to visit the doctor every three months but said he’ll soon be placed on six-month checkups.
Robert Mitschke, pastor of Lincolnton’s Bethpage Lutheran Church and Howards Creek volunteer firefighter, is currently waiting for his chronic lymphocytic leukemia to worsen before doctors can treat him. The 60-year-old said his unique leukemia type only affects between 3,000 and 5,000 people each year and produces an overabundance of white blood cells that fail to fight disease.
Mitschke was diagnosed with the rare affliction three years ago after visiting the doctor for a fire department physical. While his current symptoms include mild exhaustion and bruising, the western Lincoln County resident still considers himself in better shape than other family members, some of whom he said suffer from severe headaches, hemophilia and rheumatoid arthritis.
“I consider myself the healthiest of the bunch,” he said.
He also decided that in the months leading up to the Relay he would work toward a weight-loss goal and have his congregation hold him accountable. In addition, for each pound that he didn’t lose, he would donate $25 to his church’s Relay team.
Until medical authorities decide it’s time for him to undergo chemotherapy, Mitschke gets blood drawn every three months, all the while maintaining a positive outlook on life and clinging tight to his Christian faith. He said he’s more concerned about people choosing to follow Christ than whether he lives or dies.
“Give glory to God and God alone,” he said.