KAILUA-KONA — When Dave Placeres was diagnosed with stage three lung cancer two years ago, his mind instantly clicked into fighting mode.
He would not succumb, he told himself.
“I was going to be a cancer survivor,” Placeres said his first thought was after his doctor broke the news to him.
On Saturday, there he was, exactly that, walking laps in his purple survivor’s T-shirt at Hale Halawai in Kailua-Kona during the American Cancer Society (ACS) Relay for Life event.
“Never,” he said of entertaining thoughts of not making it, of being one of the 600,000 Americans who perish to the disease each year. “I have kids. I have a wife. There was no other option — I was going to be a cancer survivor. And to this day, I believe that.”
A monumental part of his fight was the support he received along the way. Support that came from other people facing similar situations as well as ACS, whose mission is to offer a variety of resources for those battling the disease.
For Placeres, he stayed at the ACS Hope Lodge for free while receiving treatment on Oahu — a godsend, he reflected while taking a break from walking laps, that gave him peace of mind while focused on his task at hand.
“If you can convince yourself you’re going to win, you’re going to win,” he said.
By Sunday, the annual event running now for a quarter century, raised $52,123.55.
Up to 1,000 people took part by walking laps, bidding on silent auction items and socializing around food and vendor tents to the backdrop of live music — a gathering that symbolized support, as it does every year.
“Your community is here for you,” said Kaitlin Crawford, ACS community development manager and Relay for Life coordinator, on the message the get-together intends to inspire. “There are so many resources you can utilize and nobody has to go through this fight alone. Unfortunately, we can come together on a heavy subject like a cancer but together we can fight back.”
Saturday’s event began with a canopy of flower petals dropped from a helicopter and featured the symbolic luminaries after nightfall. As the petals fell from the sky, cancer survivors clad in their purple T-shirts walked the inaugural lap around Hale Halawai. This was the first year the event was held at the Kailua-Kona landmark.
Lynn Howard was one of those survivors.
Diagnosed in 2002 with stage 2 melanoma at the age of 25, her outlook on life forever changed.
“I did a lot of soul digging and searching and really learned to forgive people and forgive myself,” Howard said. “It was more of an emotional journey and really letting go and I came out the other side clean.”
Now, years later, she’s helped several people who are embarking down the difficult path she managed to navigate.
She feels obligated, she said, to share her experience and offer help by impressing upon them the need they must have of being their biggest advocate. Empowering one’s energy comes from empowering one’s thinking.
“I really, really changed my mindset,” she said. “It’s hard to understand if you haven’t been through it. The mental stuff you go through, it’s just, I can’t even explain it. It’s different than what anybody else can experience.”
Jeanie Fraser, a breast cancer survivor after her diagnosis 12 years ago, echoed the need for support.
“Let people help you,” she said. “You’re not in this alone.”
A volunteer for the event the last couple of years, she stitched a quilt made out of past Relay T-shirts, including one of her survivor’s shirts, for the silent auction. The buy-it-now price had it going for $1,000.
“I know almost everybody has a harder time than I do,” she added, “so it’s the least I can do by giving back.”
Saturday’s event, themed “Under the Sea,” brought out ocean-themed costumes and a party-like atmosphere. Of every dollar raised, 79 cents go directly toward Hawaii Island services. ACS statistics say 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year.
It also marked Crawford’s last Relay for Life as coordinator in Kona as she prepares to move to the mainland.
Like almost everyone there, she has been affected by the deadly disease on a personal level, and it forever changed her. Her father died from it in 2016 and she’ll continue to volunteer for Relays wherever she lives.
“I would say that I really feel that my dad is proud of me because I took something that could have broke me and I made it make me stronger,” she said. “And by shining as much light as I can on a dark subject, hopefully I’m making a difference.”