CHAMPAIGN — Three decades after surviving breast cancer, Ruthie Harper can't say enough good things about an organization for which she's become a staunch supporter.
"The American Cancer Society gives you rides. We'll give you a wig. We'll give you whatever you need," she says. "And if you just need someone to talk to, I'm here for that, too."
Harper, 66, of Champaign will be taking part in her 16th Relay for Life, the cancer society's major fund-raiser and awareness event.
Relay for Life events, which take place overnight, are intended to give cancer patients and survivors opportunities to celebrate and remember cancer losses with others and to inspire fighting this disease.
The cancer society has projected there will be 1.6 million newly diagnosed cases of cancer and 585,720 cancer deaths in the U.S. this year.
As Champaign County's June 14-15 Relay for Life draws nearer, fund-raising and participation needs a boost, says Jill Rannebarger, one of four event coordinators.
This year, two "mini-relays" previously held in Mahomet and at Champaign Central High School that have helped boost the main relay fund-raising totals aren't being held, she said, and "we'd love to have more teams."
More volunteers are also needed to make this event happen, with helpers needed for such things as setting up, registering participants and running kids' activities, Rannebarger said.
"By being involved, you're making a difference," she adds. "Whatever you do, form a team, register a participant, it all helps."
Harper is marking 31 years as a breast cancer survivor next month.
When she went through surgery and treatment, she recalls, there weren't the medical advancements there are now.
"I just figure God left me here for a reason, and that reason is to help people," she says.
And does she ever.
In addition to the cancer society, some of the organizations that claim her time as a volunteer and/or leader include the TIMES center, Greater Community AIDS Project and Women's SAFE (Substance Abuse Free Environment) House. In 1987, she also founded her own youth organization, the Erma D. Clark Youth Council, to help community youth.
Harper worked for WICD Channel 15 for 35 years, and currently works for Classic Events Catering. Her health these days gives her some issues, with cluster headaches and back spasms, but she's not complaining. A frequent speaker about cancer, she urges people not to worry about the small stuff like treatment-related hair loss and to hang in there and fight.
"Don't give up. There is hope," she urges.
Fellow cancer survivor Ann Ried, 51, of Champaign, will also be making a trip along the Relay track this year with her husband, Mark, 55, and their team, "Just Depends."
Ried was diagnosed in 2008 with stage three rectal cancer, and is in remission since undergoing surgery and treatments — though after-effects remain. Chemotherapy left her feet numb, probably for life, and radiation left her with continuing digestive system issues, she said.
Ried and her husband have since had a second run-in with cancer when Mark Ried was diagnosed last fall with prostate cancer, found in a screening. His cancer is at a level that requires monitoring every four months, he says, but doesn't require treatment at this time.
Ann Ried remembers going through her own treatments during winter months, and finding it a blessing because they came at a time her husband, who works as a roofer, was more free to accompany her. She urges others with cancer to also look for the blessings in their lives.
"Humor is good, too," her husband adds.
If you go
What: Annual fund-raiser and cancer patient/survivor celebration event for the American Cancer Society, open to everyone
When: Overnight from 6 p.m. June 14 to 6 a.m. June 15
Where: Centennial High School, 913 Crescent Drive, C
Goal: 100 participants/teams together raising $240,000
Activities: Traditional ceremonies and lap around the survivor track, plus food vendors, bands and entertainment for the whole family, including games and a car show
Local Relay for Life events coming up:
DeWitt County: Clinton High School Friday
Ford County: North Park, Gibson City Saturday
Piatt County: Monticello High School Saturday
Iroquois County: Watseka High School June 13
Moultrie County: Sullivan High School June 13
Champaign County: Centennial High School June 14
Vermilion County: Catlin High School June 21
Douglas County: Tuscola High School June 22
Edgar County: Twin Lakes Park, Paris Aug. 2
Coles County: Peterson Park, Mattoon Aug. 23