Community Turns Out by The Hundreds to Support The Fight Against Cancer

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Cancer survivors line up at the starting line Saturday night, July 16, on the track at Francis Wong Stadium in Hilo during the 30th anniversary Relay For Life of the Big Island. (Photos by Nathan Christophel)

“There is no finish line until we find a cure.”

Those words adorned a banner Saturday, July 16, above the starting line on the track at Francis Wong Stadium in Hilo. The banner and that phrase summed up the reason the hundreds of people in attendance were there — to axe out cancer.

Cancer survivors walk by the main stage Saturday during Relay For Life in Hilo on the first lap of the night.

Not even Tropical Storm Darby and the rain it brought as it passed to the south of the island could keep people away.

The Big Island community gathered at the stadium Saturday night for the first in-person Relay For Life of the Big Island in two years. It was the 30th anniversary of the American Cancer Society event that raises funds to help save lives while honoring cancer survivors and remembering those who lost their battle with the scourge.

This year’s theme was “Relay Through The Decades,” and tents of participating teams on the track’s infield were decked out in retro style. There were plenty of activities for those who turned out, from country line dancing, keiki games and musical chairs to ax throwing and a luminary ceremony later in the evening, among others.


The event started at 5 p.m. with the opening ceremony and the first lap honoring cancer survivors. Paradise Helicopters also showered the stadium with flowers as one of its helicopters hovered above.

“It’s so important that you’re out here and you’re supporting those of you who are living with cancer or going through the treatment,” Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth said during the opening ceremony. “Having people who are there in support is really important.”

All proceeds raised through Relay For Life of the Big Island help fund cancer research and support people fighting cancer. Most of the funds stay right here in Hawai‘i County.

Teams had already raised about $112,000 before the event even started Saturday. By 6:30 p.m., the event had raised nearly $120,000.

“The community has done incredibly well,” Vanessa Carlson, development manager with the American Cancer Society West Region who helps organize Relay For Life of the Big Island, told Big Island Now on Saturday at the event.


There were 33 business and family teams that participated Saturday night. A total of 61 teams raised funds this year, with many doing so virtually. Carlson reported just before 5 p.m. Sunday that the total amount raised so far was $141,111.

And that’s not the final total.

“We keep the event open for ongoing donations through the end of the year as participants continue to raise funds and collect donations,” Carlson told Big Island Now via text. “We also have our Relay For Life Online Silent Auction happening Aug. 18-25 and the Pink Out Color Run on Nov. 5, which is a revenue enhancer event that contributes to our overall (Relay For Life) fundraising goal. Our goal was $135,000. We’ve done incredibly well.”

At least 700 people came out for the event throughout Saturday night, according to Carlson.

“Community members came out to celebrate, remember and fight back against cancer,” she said. “From the helicopter flower drop to the last lighted luminaria, it was an amazing evening. The American Cancer Society is so thankful for the many helping and giving hands and hearts.”


Carlson said the mission of the American Cancer Society is to fund research, save lives, celebrate lives and fight for a world without cancer. The funds raised during Relay For Life are unrestricted funds, so they can be used to fund the different pillars within the society, including for advocacy, awareness, prevention, early detection and treatment.

One thing she wants everyone to know is that the funds raised also support the American Cancer Society’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-227-2345.

“Anyone can call that number, even if you have questions about your next colonoscopy,” Carlson said. “It’s super important to know the American Cancer Society is here for you.”

Born and raised in Hilo, she has only been an employee of the American Cancer Society for about two and a half months but has participated in Relay before. Carlson had no words to describe the level of support and turnout Relay For Life receives from the community.

“There are no words,” she said Saturday night.

Carlson doesn’t have a cancer story of her own to tell, but being the data-driven person she is, to know that 1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with cancer this year makes her participation in whatever capacity that much more important.

“It’s incredible for me to watch people thrive after a cancer diagnosis, and the more I learn about the American Cancer Society, not just as a supporter but as an employee, I cannot believe I didn’t do more before,” she said.

“A lot of my friends and family have suffered from cancer and because some of them were able to have a place to stay, like Hope Lodge, or get rides to the doctor or have the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline to call when they didn’t understand and had questions, that’s why I Relay,” Linda Griffin, one of the Big Island Relay’s event co-leads, “because the American Cancer Society provides so many things for so many people, and all of us know somebody with cancer. These are benefits that you call that 1-800 number, and they’re gonna help you.”

Tricia Buskirk, president and CEO of Hawai‘i Community Federal Credit Union and a board member for the American Cancer Society in Hawai’i and Guam who was at Saturday’s event, said Relay For Life has helped reduce cancer rates by more than 29%.

“The Relay For Life is very important because the American Cancer Society does exist on fundraising money. It provides a lot of research, a lot of advocacy for cancer,” Buskirk told Big Island Now.

She’s participated in Relay For Life for more than 15 years on the Big Island and while she lived on O‘ahu. This year was special for her because she lost her mother a little less than a month ago to lung cancer.

“And honestly, without the support and the help of the people at the American Cancer Society, it would have been a very rough time for us because it was during COVID,” Buskirk said. “The support, the love and the help that I received from them is just tremendous.”

She said organizers and participants were excited to be back in person. The past two years, the event went on either virtually or as a hybrid of online and in person events and was still able to raise a lot of money through the generosity of the Big Island community. But there’s just something special to being back together at the stadium.

“Being in person, it just has a different feel to it,” Buskirk said. “Bringing everybody together and supporting, it’s wonderful.”

Shan Inaba of Hilo works on a luminary for her mother on Saturday night during Relay For Life at Francis Wong Stadium.

Shan Inaba of Hilo said she participates for all the cancer survivors, especially her mother. Inaba was creating a personalized luminary for her mother Saturday during Relay when she spoke with Big Island Now.

“She has had cancer twice and she’s a survivor of breast cancer,” Inaba said. “I’m very proud of her and we love her so much. I do this for her and for all the survivors and all the cancer patients. We love them so much.”

She said the turnout at this year’s Relay was great, especially with Darby lurking off the Big Island’s south shores at the time. Inaba agreed that participating in Relay is important.

“It’s very important because we never know when we’re gonna have cancer and we want to be a good support for Hawai‘i,” Inaba said.

Maile Boggeln of Kea‘au, another of Relay’s event co-leads, said Relay For Life is important because it provides hope.

“It gives hope to the survivors and to the community,” Boggeln told Big Island Now on Saturday night.

She got involved with Relay For Life of the Big Island because her mother was diagnosed with cancer on her 40th birthday after her first mammogram, to which Boggeln had to convince her to go.

“She was so convinced she would not have cancer because it was her first mammogram,” Boggeln remembers.

That deeply impacted Boggeln. She was 12 years old when her mother was diagnosed and became her primary caregiver.

“I really wish I would have had the resources and support of the community that the American Cancer Society provides for my mom,” Boggeln said, “and now I get to be a part of it for other people.”

She kept coming back to the word “hope.”

“When you are battling something like cancer, it feels endless and it feels like there’s nothing that you can do to get to the end,” Boggeln said, “and I think something like the American Cancer Society Relay For Life gives people that positivity and that hope to keep going.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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