TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KLIX) – Five years into the new century was not a good year for Kelley Ramirez. At the time, she didn’t know how much longer she’d be here. Now, 12 years later, Ramirez has a smile on her face. It’s not a smile of smugness, but one of gratitude.

But sometimes that smile still turns upside down when she learns that someone else she knows has been diagnosed with cancer. She remembers what she felt when she received the grim news of her own disease – and snap, just like that, all of the emotions return.

“It’s like having PTSD,” she said. “You start reliving the anxiety.”

These students are my heroes,” says Kelley Ramirez, theater arts teacher at O'Leary Middle School. “They give up their time and money and energy so, hopefully, other people don’t have to go through what I did.

The good news: advancements in research and technology have made it so it is not always a death sentence when a person is diagnosed with cancer – not if, in some cases, the disease is detected and treated early enough, Ramirez said.

Enter O’Leary Middle School, which this week and next is raising awareness about cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment by participating in Relay For Life, modified for a school setting. It’s something the school has been doing for more than two decades.

This year’s goal is to raise $10,000, but more would be welcome. In 2014 the school raised $16,000. Since 1999, the school has raised more than $163,000 for the American Cancer Society.

“And that’s before this year’s fundraiser,” Ramirez, a theater arts teacher at the school, said.

The school dedicates two weeks of fundraising for the cause each year. Activities this week are in conjunction with the school’s Spirit Week. On Tuesday, students were dressed as superheroes. The theme: "Be a Hero and Find a Cure."

Photo by Andrew Weeks
Photo by Andrew Weeks

Eight graders Emma Kober and Kenydi Young wore Superman t-shirts – err, in their case, Supergirl t-shirts? – while Kaitlyn DeBie wore a Batman t-shirt and Josh Mix was dressed in a Spider-Man costume.

The characters they represented were not necessarily their favorite superhero, the students said, but it was fun to pretend. Something they weren’t pretending was their reasons to support Relay For Life.

“Why do you relay?” Ramirez asked the students.

Mix said he has a cousin who was diagnosed with cancer, and so he’s thinking of his family member. Young and DeBie said they also are doing it for people they know who have been diagnosed with the disease.

“Everybody is affected by cancer, whether it’s a family member or friend who’s been diagnosed with it,” Ramirez said. “Everybody in some way is affected by this disease.”

Annette McFarlin, a computer science teacher at the school, said her mother was diagnosed with cancer and there’ve been several people over the years at the school who had the disease. A few of them are no longer here because of it.

Numerous types of cancer exist. More than 7,300 people have been diagnosed with some form of the disease just this year in Idaho, according to the American Cancer Society. Nationally, breast cancer is the leading type among women (30 percent), followed by lung and bronchus cancer (12 percent). Prostate cancer is the leading type among men (19 percent), followed by lung and bronchus (14 percent). Colon and rectum cancer are listed third among the most frequently diagnosed cancers of men (9 percent) and women (8 percent). Cancer of the uterus (7 percent, women) and urinary bladder cancer (7 percent, men) are listed as the fourth most diagnosed form of the disease among the sexes.

Usually, a network of support exists for people who've been diagnosed with cancer. Not only is it tough on the person diagnosed, McFarlin said, but such news is tough on family members and friends.

Ramirez said her door is always open for students who might want to ask questions or talk about their feelings, whether they’re concerned about receiving treatment themselves or are worried about a family member of friend.

Some cancer patients and/or survivors might not want to talk about their experiences, but Ramirez said she is willing to share her experiences and answer questions whenever someone in need might want to talk. The important things is that people receive regular health checkups and, if ever they receive bad news, know that with today’s advancements such news is not always a death sentence. There is hope, she said.

As part of O’Leary’s fundraising activities, some students – members of the school’s 11-year-old Shaved Heads Club – will shave their heads in support of those going through cancer treatments.

“I call these our rock star students,” McFarlin said, while Ramirez said they are her superheroes.

Photo by Andrew Weeks
Photo by Andrew Weeks

The activities this week at the school will culminate with a carnival on Friday. Students and staff that day that will dress in purple, representing Relay For Life, and each grade will have allotted times throughout the day to participate in the fun.

Ramirez said even though cancer is a dour topic, the school tries to make fundraising a fun experience for the students. Her philosophy: "Life is not always going to be perfect," she said. "When you get lemons, make lemonade."

The carnival is where most of the fundraising is achieved, McFarlin said, and the school appreciates all of the donors and participants. Filer Fire District donates a dunk tank every year, for instance, and many parents and organizations give their time and donations.

All proceeds – 100 percent, the teachers said – go toward the American Cancer Society.

Ramirez said there’s another reason the annual fundraising activities are important for students: it lets them know that education doesn’t only take place in the classroom; there are opportunities outside of academics to learn, stretch their minds, and help others.

“These students are my heroes,” she said, noting that since her diagnosis in 2005 she’s made many lasting relationships over the years. “They give up their time and money and energy so, hopefully, other people don’t have to go through what I did.”

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