Cancer connects community



May 8, 2015 - 12:00 AM

Cancer does not discriminate. It creeps up and latches onto children and adults, women and men, health conscious bodies and kind-hearted souls.
Roberta Ellis was 25 when she had her first encounter with skin cancer. Ellis, a red-haired, fair-skinned, Iola native, endured her fair share of sunburns in her youth.
“Back then we didn’t use a lot of sunscreen, you used baby oil,” said Ellis, now 56.
Melanoma continues to appear on Ellis’ skin. Since January she has had spots removed from her chin and arm. She receives treatment in Wichita. Doctors have cut and burned off the cancerous spots. Recently they tried a chemical peel.
“I never thought about dying from skin cancer, but I had an aunt who did, and that’s what scared me,” Ellis said. “I didn’t think of skin cancer as being that bad, but it is. Most people think of cancer as more of an internal thing.”
Over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, according to
Ellis, a dispatcher at the Allen County 911 center, and her husband, Curtis, kept close watch of their daughter, Michelle, whose skin is also fair. Ellis made sure she wore sunscreen and protected herself from the sun. But when Michelle turned 18 she did the unthinkable. She used indoor tanning beds. Michelle received skin cancer as a  result.
Preventive measures are very important, Ellis said.
“If you have anything suspicious you should get it checked early,” she advised. “Even if it’s raining, wear sunscreen.”
ELLIS is the president of Kappa Alpha Sorority in Allen County. She has been active in the sorority since the early 1980s.
“In the beginning I didn’t really know what it was all about but then I realized how much good we do,” she said.
The sorority, a non-profit organization, helps local cancer patients in Allen County with medical and everyday needs. Families of patients frequently contact the sorority, which has 21 members, to request aid. The group helps with everything from gas cards, utility bills, money for medications and groceries. Each fundraiser helps build its cancer fund to aid local cancer patients. The sorority’s biggest fundraiser is Farm-City Days. Some members also participate in Relay for Life.
Denise Smith, event manager for the Relay for Life, said the Relay will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. The event June 5-6 will use a 1980s theme, “Don’t Stop Believing.” The Relay helps raise money for the American Cancer Society for cancer research.
Smith, a nurse at Allen County Regional Hospital, has been a part of the event for 17 years. The event’s cause is near and dear to her heart.
“My son died of cancer when he was 14 years old in 2009,” Smith said. “A lot of his medications were research drugs. If it wasn’t for that we wouldn’t have had the 18 months we had with him.”
The Relay is planned to begin at 6 p.m. June 5 on the south side of the courthouse square and run until 6 a.m. June 6.
In case of inclement weather the event will be held in the Recreation Community Building at Riverside Park.
At 5:30, the Fiddlers and Pickers group will give pre-entertainment and then caregivers will be welcomed and introduced at 6. Survivors will then take an honorary lap. At 7 o’clock, teams will auction off baskets to raise money. The luminaria ceremony will begin at 9.
“Any Relay participant can sell a luminary for $10,” Smith said. “Purple ones are sold for cancer patients we have lost since last year. The ceremony is very beautiful.”
Greater than Fables, a Galena-based band, will perform during the event. Inflatables and the Kiwanis train will be available for children.
There are 120 participants and 13 teams signed up for this year with signup still open. Participants can sign up at under the Allen County event page.
The fundraising goal this year is $45,000, of which half has already been raised.
A RELAY team, Iola Sisters, has been nationally recognized for its fundraising efforts for Relay for Life. Edna Donovan, team captain, said her sister Ina Railsback was the third top fundraiser last year for the Kansas and Missouri territory. Donovan placed 10th overall and the team received seventh place.
Railsback got her start in raising money in 2005 when she went to a silent auction. The money she won at the auction was sent to help cancer patients in Iola. In 2007 Donovan reached out to her sister to see if she’d like to help sponsor a team. Railsback took on the challenge and became captain.
“Our team has built up each year,” Railsback said. “It has really grown.”
For 29 years Railsback worked for an insurance company based out of Tennessee. American International Group Insurance took over the company she worked for and they began matching $1 for every $1 she raised. In the last four years they raised it to a $2 match.
“I donated my own money and they’ve matched it,” she said.
The team raises money through bake and garage sales and other fundraisers. This year she has already raised close to $7,000.
In 2013 Railsback passed on the captain’s hat to Donovan. That October, Railsback found out she had Stage III ovarian cancer.
“It has been a hard run,” Railsback said. “I’ve been in remission since March 2014.”
Railsback tries to spread information about ovarian cancer to anyone and everyone. She stressed the research aspect.
“We have fun at the event and I look forward to doing it,” she said. “The research is so important. It saves lives and it has saved mine.”
Railsback moved from Owasso, Okla., to College Station, Texas, to be closer to her doctors. She said teams of doctors there have been beneficial with their research.
She plans to be at the Relay this year in Iola.
“I’ll be up there to walk what I can,” she said. “I’m proud I can do it and still beat it. I try to stay positive.”
The Relay committee, made up of 12 members, hopes to have 80 survivors signed up for this year’s event.
“We do this to honor our survivors,” Smith said.
For Ellis, the Relay is a way to honor those who are gone. Her father and brother both died of lung cancer.
“It’s about remembrance,” she said. “We remember those who are battling and those who have passed.”

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