At 18 months of age, Virginia Orlando was too young to remember having cancer treatment, but she has always been grateful for it.
She had a retinoblastoma tumor that cost her her right eye. Today, at 79, Orlando is believed to be one of the longest cancer survivors in Washington County.
Thankful for her cancer-free life, Orlando and her husband, Lee, regularly participate in the annual American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.
The Washington County Chapter’s relay will celebrate its 20th anniversary when the Chartiers-Houston relay kicks off Saturday morning at the Allison Park Elementary School track. The relay will end at 11 a.m. Sunday.
Following the 10:45 a.m. opening ceremony, Orlando, along with others who have beaten the disease, will walk in the survivors lap.
Although Relay for Life focuses on the fight against cancer, it does so by making sure everyone has a good time. There are family-friendly activities that take place around the track, such as carnival games, contests and concession stands. This year, the Chartiers-Houston Leo Club will host a kids’ tent, and other teams are hosting a cake auction and a T-shirt contest.
In addition, a candlelit luminaria ceremony will begin at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Twenty years ago, the concept of having a 24-hour relay was a novel one, said Nancy Verderber, local Relay for Life specialist.
Held first at Washington High School’s stadium, the relay raised $23,900. Last year, the five Washington County relays raised $533,000.
“It’s an important contributor to the fight against cancer,” Verderber said.
The first relay included Washington and Greene counties, but today there is a separate Greene County relay. As the event grew over the years, other relays were added. Now there are relays in Peters Township and the Mon Valley, and at California University of Pennsylvania and McGuffey High School. In addition, other venues have held their own mini-relays, such as Washington & Jefferson College.
A Tacoma, Wash., colorectal surgeon, Dr. Gordon Klatt, began the first cancer relay in 1985, and it has grown to include relays in 5,200 U.S. communities.
“It’s our national signature event,” said Verderber, noting that relays also have expanded into 20 other countries.
Relays have allowed the American Cancer Society to double funds for cancer reserach. Some of those treatments, Verderber said, were nonexistent two decades ago.
“So many wonderful programs have been funded thanks to relay,” she said.
According to the ACS website, more than $79 million was given in research and training grants last year, including a grant to the University of Minnesota to study the genetic mechanism that causes retinoblastoma.
Orlando said it was during a game of hide-and-seek that her mother realized her young daughter was having vision problems in one eye. She took Orlando to an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed the toddler with the tumor. The tumor and Orlando’s eye were removed, and she received radiation treatment at Washington Hospital. She does not know how much treatment she received or for how long, but the cancer never returned.
Retinoblastoma can run in families, but Orlando said no one else in her family had this type of cancer. She believes it could have been related to a birth injury.
She considers herself fortunate and said the loss of vision has never prevented her from doing what she wanted to do. She became a licensed practical nurse and worked for a number of hospitals and medical facilities, including private-duty nursing.
“That they cured it in that day and age is wonderful,” she said. “It was so great that they could cure me and I could live a normal life. So I’m grateful for that.”
There have been participants, teams and sponsors who have supported the local Relay for Life for two decades. Among them are teams from Subs Unlimited, R.G. Johnson and the Buccaneers. Longtime sponsors include Washington Health System, UPMC Cancer Centers in partnership with the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Washington Financial, Accutrex, Giant Eagle and All Occasions Party Rental.