For Vicky Upchurch, Relay for Life was a difficult milestone.
The mother of leukemia victim Jennifer Upchurch spent her second Relay on Friday night realizing – even after 16 months – that losing a daughter to cancer is still tough emotionally.
“It’s hard but we’ve had a lot of support,” Vicky Upchurch said at her family’s tent during the cancer research fundraiser at Franklin County High School.
The annual event is held nationwide as a fundraiser for cancer research and is hosted by the American Cancer Society. Families, organizations and friends are invited to camp and walk around a track throughout the night to show support for cancer survivors and victims after weeks of fundraising.
The Upchurch tent was decorated with boxing gloves and a sign that read “Fight like a girl,” which was Jennifer’s mantra during her battle with leukemia.
“Last year, (the Relay) was just a blur because it was so close to her death, but this year it’s hit me harder, it’s been much tougher,” Vicky Upchurch said.
Jennifer Upchurch died Feb. 11, 2011, at age 25 after a three-month stay at the University of Kentucky hospital.
This year the Upchurch family raised about $1,200 – considered a major achievement – in memory of Jennifer for the event. This nearly doubled the family’s total from last year; however, for the family, the event is not simply about raising money. It’s also a way to remember “Jen”– the mother of now 5-year-old Cameron.
The boy – who lives in Lawrenceburg with his grandfather, Thomas Upchurch, and stepgrandmother, Rita Upchurch – remembers his mother well though he was nearly 4 when she died.
“For being so young he really understands what has happened,” Thomas Upchurch said about his grandson. “Before school he’ll blow kisses to the sky up to heaven for his mom.”
The boy was constantly on the move Friday night with family friends during water fights and catching lightning bugs. The heat didn’t faze the boy, who could only sit still long enough to spell his name and say he was having fun at the all-night event. His “Pa,” Thomas Upchurch, says he’s adapted well since losing Jennifer, but he has 100 questions.
“We just don’t want him to forget his mother,” Vicky Upchurch said.
Jennifer’s siblings, Thomas Upchurch Jr. and Becky Corn, say they answer every question Cameron asks so he never forgets.
Around the Upchurch home there are many photos of Jennifer.
“He has bunk beds with drawers underneath,” Rita Upchurch said. “In the drawers he has pictures of him and his mom when they were in Florida, and another of his mom with her friends. He’s got them held down on the bottom of his drawer with decorative glass stones he’s collected from her grave.”
He takes whichever photo he likes for himself, Thomas Upchurch said.
Vicky Upchurch bought several luminaries from the vendors in memory of Jennifer. At 10 p.m. the hundreds of small luminaries – which lined the oblong walking path – were lit with tea candles in memory of those who’ve lost their battle with cancer.
“You never think it’s not going to be OK, because you can’t think it won’t,” Vicky said.
While the Upchurch family turned the day into a memorial for Jennifer, they stood and applauded for the dozens of cancer survivors – wearing purple shirts with “SURIVOR” boldly printed on the back – as they opened with the “Survivor Walk.”
Linda Sherrou, 59, a six-and-a-half year breast cancer survivor, says the first year she participated in the opening walk was not what most would expect.
“Everyone reacts differently to his or her first survivor walk,” she said. “There are those who after they have cancer it becomes a major part of their identities, and others become very reticent about it and so forth – and that was me. I didn’t feel very comfortable wearing that large word, survivor, on my back.”
Sherrou says she was diagnosed with cancer during her annual mammogram test, and the Lexington native, who now lives in Frankfort, has since become a “poster child” for early detection.
“But everyone that observed the walk is always pleased to see the survivors, and for those still undergoing treatment it’s a great sign of encouragement,” she said.
Priscilla West, 75, of Frankfort, sat with Sherrou and a neighbor, Marguerite Wordell, and each wore their purple survivor shirts under a large tent to cool off after their opening lap.
“It was tough this year with the heat,” said West, who is a four-year esophageal cancer survivor, about the survivor lap.
Temperatures climbed to 100 Friday afternoon before cooler air reached the area about 6:45 p.m. The wind picked up for several minutes – knocking over tents, sending signs soaring across the field and tearing a large limb from the tree line on the east side of the school. After the winds died, the temperatures remained pleasant for the remainder of the evening.
The women enjoyed the shade under the tent before joining some of the Zumba dancers in front of the main stage.
West said it’s important for others to know the effects of cancer remain even in remission.
“It weakens your whole system and you get tired so easily,” West said. “It’s hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it.”
Wordell, of Frankfort, is an 18-year breast cancer survivor, and she says she tries to make it to the local Relay when she has the option.
“It’s like a party for a good cause,” she said.
“You feel grateful, because I don’t know if we would have been cured without the research and donations at work.”
The event lasted into Saturday morning, and while Vicky Upchurch knows it’s too late for her own daughter, she plans to continue to fight for other cancer patients.
“It’s important to us to help reach a cure,” she said.