Strength, survival celebrated

For Dewayne Johns, 25, of Altoona nothing is more satisfying about Relay for Life than the Survivors Lap, when all cancer survivors gather together to make the first revolution around the track at Mansion Park Stadium.

It’s worth the agony of treatment, he said, and the nights kept away from diarrhea, vomiting and other symptoms that come from both a disease that ravages the body, and its treatment.

Johns first was diagnosed with Alveolar soft part sarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that grows between tissue and bone of which there are only around 100 cases diagnosed yearly.

It started as a tennis-ball sized tumor in his leg, Johns said, discovered in April 2011 while he was at police academy training, but doctors quickly discovered 36 others.

Standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiation, failed to shrink the tumors, he said, but a new and experimental treatment helped. Thirty-seven tumors became seven, and he said he’s proud to say that it’s been three years since he was given six months to live.

Johns was moved to participate in his first Relay for Life last year, he said, to “give back to my community, because my community saved my life.”

He has since dedicated himself to participate in Relay for Life every year, and he and other members of “Team Sarcoma” are ready to run, he said.

The 19th annual Relay for Life kicked off its 24-hour event Friday at 11 a.m., which co-chair Sue Boland said represents a cancer patient’s constant 24-hour battle.

Now is the time to celebrate, she said, with 58 teams and close to 750 participants coming together to celebrate another year of survival and strength in the face of a terrible disease.

Sunny skies and a sweltering heat were mostly welcomed by the scores of walkers, many of whom donned themed team T-shirts or costumes, or carried Relay for Life or team flags to identify themselves.

Sally Balmforth, herself a 23-year breast cancer survivor and “Team Sarcoma” member, said she was moved to join the walk when Johns approached her at Our Lady of Lourdes after his first round of chemo.

He wanted to be able to do something, she said, and she told him “How about surviving? That would be nice.”

Having recently lost her brother-in-law and mother-in-law to cancer, Balmforth said she can’t lose another friend and is happy to support Johns.

Although there are ups and downs, Johns said, he’s reminded by all his family and friends of something one of his doctors told him: “There’s always going to be a better day,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.