Here in the town of Aitkin, up in Minnesota’s Wild North, folks don’t mess around when it comes to cancer. “We decided we would promote awareness,” explains Elaine Hill, co-chair for the county’s Relay for Life Committee. And they’re doing it. In the week leading up to the town’s big event, Aitkin is draped in purple (the designated color of the American Cancer Society), decorating their shops to celebrate survivorship, drinking purple smoothies, and raising money on a business and personal basis.
Relay for Life is in association with the American Cancer Society and is billed as their signature [nationwide] fundraising event to be held locally this coming Friday. The money collected “goes to research and to different services that are available,” explained Elaine, “including free wigs, a feel better program” for women and men, and in many cases, when needed, “a free hospital bed”.
But the story of fighting cancer in Aitkin runs deeper than affiliation with Relay for Life. In a town of 1,984, when somebody gets cancer, it’s personal, because everybody knows everybody. In a single day in town I found myself surrounded by stories of survival meets images of hope.
I spoke with multiple cancer survivors, many of whom had benefited by town fundraising events in which the good people of Aitkin stepped forward to help each other out. Silent auctions, live auctions, family and friends not waiting to be asked for help. But more than monetary support, this town truly lends moral support, as one young man explained, “even if it’s just in one person’s life – it’s still a difference in their life and it’s very important to them.”
At the age of 36, one town cancer survivor, Kathie Smith, a mom of two young children, explained that it was Austin Price, a young boy who was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 1/2, who “paved the way for my kids to handle me being diagnosed with cancer.” “I graduated from high school together with [Austin’s mom] and Austin was in day care with my children. He taught my kids that just because you have cancer [it] doesn’t mean it’s fatal.” Somewhat of a living legend here in Aitkin, Austin, now age 6, has survived a year following eight months of hospitalization and treatment down at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. “He’s made it,” beamed Kathie, fighting back tears.
When asked for advice for others who might be fighting for their very lives around the world, Austin, moving between examining the camera and sitting on his mother’s lap, rubbed his head before answering: “Be strong” – to be followed by the simple, hard fought admonition – “be brave.”