Cancer survivors fly their colors at Relay for Life event

Paul DeMello and Nikki Smith Blose, pancreatic cancer survivors
Paul DeMello and Nikki Smith Blose, pancreatic cancer survivors

Did you know that the color purple stands for pancreatic cancer? Many people know that pink stands for breast cancer, but how many know that blue is for prostate cancer and orange is for leukemia? Each type of cancer has been assigned a color. Purple is also the color of Relay for Life.

At the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life on Saturday at Nipomo High School, team “Paul’s Purple Posse” was there to support retired firefighter Paul DeMello’s fight against pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has a special meaning for me, as my cousin died of it 3 years ago at age 65.

This is the first Relay for Life to take place in Nipomo. Numerous people were out for the event, which typically continues for 24 hours while teams walk the track in support of cancer research and cancer survivors.

Survivors walk the first lap while children dance around a maypole, representing all the colors assigned to the various cancers. The next group to walk is the survivors and their caregivers, after which the teams representing various groups begin their walk. In the evening, there is a luminaria ceremony remembering those who have been lost.

DeMello, 69, suddenly became very ill with flu-like symptoms and severe stomach pain after working out at the gym in June 2009. His wife, Diann, took him to the E.R. the next day.

Within a few days, Dr. Howard Hayashi, determining that the tumor was wrapped around 2 major blood vessels and couldn’t be excised, performed surgery to bypass the enflamed pancreas. Fortunately, the stomach pain eased completely after surgery.

After one month of recovery from the surgery, the chemo and radiation treatments began. After those ended, DeMello “feels great now,” albeit often tired and needing rest.

Wife Diann is herself a breast cancer survivor of 3 years. DeMello’s first wife died of ovarian cancer at age 52. Diann lost both her parents to cancer: her mother to leukemia when she was 2½, and her father to lymphoma when she was 17.

The DeMellos will be off to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix for Paul’s next surgery in a few days. Mayo performs a specialized surgery, where doctors will remove as much of the tumor as possible. While he’s opened up, they will radiate parts of the tumor. The Clinic is one of the few places in the world where this procedure is done.

Another survivor, Shirley Willlingham, 68, was busy painting landscapes at the Relay. She is a colon and breast cancer survivor. In 2001, she took up painting at her husband’s suggestion and now volunteers her time teaching art therapy to cancer patients at Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria.

Willingham was very spirited, despite her cancer returning in her hip and neck in August. She undergoes injections and takes medications to fight the cancer, which cannot be operated upon, works out 3 days a week and continues to volunteer with the patients. She proudly tells me she quit smoking in January.

The DeMellos met Nikki Smith Blose, 50, of Nipomo, also with pancreatic cancer, while Paul was undergoing treatments. She has survived for 2 years, but had lymphosarcoma at age 10 and cervical cancer in her 30s. Not every survivor can always be at the relay — she was not feeling well this day and had to stay home, but her husband came.

And the Nipomo Relay for Life earned $30,000 for the cause, $5,000 more than expected.

Several more Relays for Life are planned for San Luis Obispo County, including one in Arroyo Grande at St. Patrick’s School on June 26 and 27.

In June, the American Cancer Society moved to 1540 W. Branch St. in Arroyo Grande.

This office covers all of San Luis Obispo County and northern Santa Barbara County. Deb Jeffers, Relay for Life manager for the Arroyo Grande Cancer Society, showed me the “wig room,” where survivors who have lost their hair, are given a free wig.

They also get a makeup kit, as cancer can change a person’s coloring and appearance dramatically.

There is a cancer support group in South County. Arroyo Grande Hospital Foundation opened the Coastal Cancer Center on Oak Park Boulevard last year, the only such center in San Luis Obispo County.

For information, call the American Cancer Society hotline at 1-800-ACS (227)-2345, or the local office at 473-1748. The office is open Monday through Thursday from 9 to 5 p.m.

Gayle Cuddy can be reached by e-mail at nightengayles@aol.com