Standing before friends and family during a commencement ceremony is a momentous occasion. But for 24-year-old Dana Gieselman, who was graduating in 2012 from the University of Southern Indiana with a bachelor’s degree in communications studies, it was a day with more meaning than most. As a survivor of leukemia, which she was diagnosed with when she was 6 years old, she says one of the memories that stands out in her mind about the day is walking across the stage and hearing her daughter.
“I remember I was on stage and I looked to my left — I had put her in this little dress with a lime green sweater so I knew where she was. And she was close enough that when I walked across the stage I heard her say, ‘That’s my mom up there!’ and she was so happy,” says Gieselman of the day.
Now 28 years old, Gieselman’s story is one of hope. As a young child, she suffered from symptoms doctors could not find a source for. Theories ranged from a severe case of mononucleosis (or mono) to a virus that would not go away.
“There were days I wouldn’t go to school and I would sleep 14, 16 hours a day,” says Gieselman. “I wasn’t eating. I think at my lowest weight, when I was 6, I was down to between 35 and 40 pounds. I would have really high fevers, a lot of bloody noses … and a lot of leg pain.”
Finally, Gieselman’s family ordered blood work and the news came on Dec. 22, 1993; she had leukemia and was diagnosed at high risk with a survival rate between 60 and 70 percent. Her chemotherapy treatments began the very next day at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee, and would last for three years, even though her cancer would go into remission in February 1994. Another victory against her cancer came when she officially was released as a patient from St. Jude’s when she was 21 years old. After fighting the disease her entire life, she says cancer has taught her how to appreciate life and family every day.
It was the support system of her family that helped her, says Gieselman, but she also points to the life-saving treatments and research from not only St. Jude’s, but also the American Cancer Society and its Relay for Life.
“Things like Relay for Life and American Cancer Society, that continue to raise money, and the efforts they put in to bringing awareness are needed,” she says. “Cancer is such a horrible disease and it takes so much from people.”
Cancer patients all over the country and the world have benefited from the work of the American Cancer Society (ACS) and its grassroots, signature event Relay for Life, says Evansville Relay for Life Volunteer Publicity Chair Carolyn Helm. With more than 100 types of cancer known today, and one out of two men and one out of three women diagnosed with some form during their lifetime, money raised by Relay is crucial for research to find new treatments and cures for all types of cancer.
“The American Cancer Society is the largest funder of research after the U.S. Government,” says Barbara South, Community Champion Volunteer with the Evansville Relay. “Without the money from Relay going into the American Cancer Society, there would not be the treatments, the survival rates, and all of the things that are happening today.”
For more than 100 years, ACS has worked toward a powerful goal — seeing less cancer in the world. The history of ACS started in 1913 when 10 doctors and five laypeople in New York City came together to bring more awareness about the deadly diseases to the public in hopes to make progress against them.
Today ACS is an international organization headquartered in Atlanta with regional and local offices that dot the country and support 11 geographical divisions that allow it to have a presence in every community. According to the organization’s website, Relay for Life is the world’s largest movement to end cancer with 4 million people across the world participating in more than 6,000 relays each year.
Evansville’s Relay for Life, the first to be started in Indiana according to Helm, has been bringing together volunteers and survivors at the annual event for 26 years. Though ACS raises money all over the country, many local organizations and three Indiana universities see funds returned to them for research, support groups, and more.
“All the research dollars come right back to us. We’re local,” says South, who is a survivor of breast cancer. “I’m local, I’m a benefit of those dollars. Carolyn is a benefit. Dana is a benefit of those dollars that have been raised over the years.”
This year’s Relay will kick off at 11 a.m. and come to a close at 11 p.m.
“It’s June 11 from 11 to 11. I love that. I just say, ‘Remember the 11 and you got it,’” says Helm.
Returning to the outdoors at Goebel Soccer Complex, 6800 N. Green River Road, those participating also can expect to see the Hadi Shrine Funsters cheer on survivors led by Shelley Kirk, celebrity grand marshal and cancer survivor, and survivors will be escorted by local Girl Scouts. Christy Gibson of Sassy Sweets Confections will be present with her pink cupcake truck as well as Courtney Duffy’s The Duffy Shuffle, an American food truck. Other events include a canine demonstration and many family-friendly activities. The traditional luminaria ceremony closes the event as names are read by longtime WFIE 14 News “Midday with Mike” host Mike Blake in honor or in memory of those diagnosed with cancer.
“Our focus this year is to make it an appealing event for families,” says Helm. “We want people to come whether they can walk or not.”
“We want everyone to come out and celebrate with us because it’s going to be a party,” adds South.
For more information about the Evansville Relay for Life, call 812-475-9486 or visit facebook.com/RFLEVV.