Tears and laughter at annual Relay for Life

Julie Elkins cried only twice during her 11-year battle with breast cancer.

The first time was while walking out of a clinic with the words, "You have cancer" ringing in her ears. The second was when her husband shaved her head. The Costa Mesa resident was also unprepared for the chemotherapy-induced loss of her eyebrows and eyelashes, she recalled.

"I looked like Charlie Brown when I was bald," said Elkins, 52, laughing. "I learned how to tie scarves so I wouldn't look stupid."

That experience not only introduced her to the American Cancer Society's (ACS) "Look Good Feel Better" campaign — which arms women with knowledge on applying makeup, finding wigs and handling skin problems resulting from the disease — but also brought her to Costa Mesa's seventh Relay for Life event on Saturday.

Having undergone 11 surgeries in as many years and a litany of painful medical procedures, Elkins' faith in ACS' resources has been reinforced. A 24-hour walk and fundraiser, Relay for Life bolsters the health organization's research, advocacy, awareness, programming, and more.

"I'm a better person because I got cancer, but I wouldn't wish it on anyone," Elkins said.

Elkins joined survivors and caregivers — wearing white and purple sashes respectively — for the opening ceremony at Costa Mesa High School's track. The band played Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and Lady Gaga's "The Edge of Glory" and the cheerleading team performed a short routine, declaring "What are we yelling for? Relay for Life."

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece, who cited the occasion's intent to "Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.", was among those present.

"I just encourage [those of] you that have always thought about starting your own team that you go ahead and do it," said Leece, chairwoman of "Team Costa Mesa," which debuted this year and raised more than $1,000. "You've got to start somewhere and this is a great cause."

While some were not bothered by the drizzle and chill — atypical for a June morning — others huddled close for warmth. The crowd featured toddlers munching on Goldfish crackers, women comparing the size of their biceps and a young girl dressed in a neon green shirt that proclaimed "Cancer sucks."

According to event chair MaryAnn Dunham, people are hard pressed to find someone who is not directly or indirectly affected by cancer. It is this pervasiveness that underscores the importance of collected funds, allowing the relay to continue growing. With the help of 33 registered teams — some of which constructed stalls, while others' members walked laps — the Costa Mesa chapter will collect in excess of $30,000, she estimates.

Indicating tents that were pitched for participants who planned to spend the night outdoors, she said, "Cancer doesn't sleep and neither do we."

Cheri Sheldon — a 27-year Costa Mesa High Teacher who was flanked by her husband and son — also took to the mic, recounting her traumatic journey with colon cancer. Her students responded to her often tearful experience by calling out, "We love you Ms. Sheldon," and presented her with a bouquet of sunflowers.

"Each day I'm grateful for everything that life has to offer me," said Sheldon, who ended chemotherapy six weeks ago. "And yet, each day I'm haunted, as I know many of you are, by the possibility of one bad test or one bad scan that you have to start your nightmare all over again. But, life continues."

Survivor and caregiver laps, a luminaria ceremony and even a midnight pizza party for the top fundraising team were in the pipeline at the event. The Costa Mesa Fire Department will cater a pancake breakfast on Sunday morning, Dunham said.

Holly Smith, whose husband Peter was diagnosed with Stage 4 tonsil cancer in 2006, doesn't know how she would have survived the battle without the support of her family and friends. Some let her air her concerns, while others offered medical advice and dropped off coolers filled with food every night for weeks.

Likening the help to a competition among her Newport Beach neighbors, she chuckled, adding that it freed up her time to be her husband's fiercest advocate, while taking care of the couple's young daughters.

Allowing herself one bout of crying after learning about Peter's health, Holly then focused on "maintaining a positive attitude."

Elkins voiced her agreement, along with the belief that her bout with cancer also instilled empathy and appreciation in her.

"I wake up in the morning and feel blessed that I wake up — I got to celebrate 10 more birthdays with my kids," she said.

Her renewed motto on life? To laugh through it.

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