“This year cancer will take the lives of half a million people,” said Sen. Sam Brownback R,Kan.,who was one of the speakers at the Celebration on the Hill on Thursday.
The day was fair as a thin layer of clouds covered the sky diluting the warm rays of the sun and huge white tents could be seen from afar lined up one after the other,down at the base of the Hill.
Above each tent,strapped to a pole rising up about 10 feet,were purple flags printed with the name of each state.
Inside each tent were ambassadors from different chapters of the American Cancer Society.
The event was called Celebration on the Hill,and it was a relay that would last from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Special guests and music,including live bands,were taking the stage that was erected for this all-day relay.
Celebration on the Hill meant many things the honoring of cancer survivors from all over the nation,the uniting of all the people dedicated to fighting cancer,but most importantly,the lobbying of Congress to pass several bills that would aid in the research and prevention of cancer.
The American Cancer Society has over 28 million volunteers and supporters who reach 3,400 communities.
Each of those communities sent a group of ambassadors to represent the community.
One of the volunteers and ambassadors at the celebration was Sandra Wooten,who drove 2,000 miles from El Paso,Texas,with her husband,Donald Wooten,also a volunteer. “Our purpose here is to get Congress to fund more money to the N. I. H.,(National Institute of Health),” said Sandra Wooten.
Sandra Wooten and her husband,Donald Wooten,have been affected by cancer in a number of ways. They lost several family members to cancer and are constantly around cancer patients in El Paso.
Sandra Wooten's son,John Patrick Johnson,32,suffered from leukemia and is now in remission and her brother-in-law,Rev. Kenneth Walker also suffers from liver cancer.
Donald Wooten's mother dies from lung cancer from second hand smoke.
Sandra Wooten describes one of her most stirring memories affected by cancer,
“Back home,we held a breast cancer luncheon once a year. One year we called it,“Pretty in Pink,” because all the decorations were done in pink. One of the first to show up that year was a young woman who was diagnosed with the cancer two weeks prior to the luncheon. She seemed so young to me to be afflicted by this disease. The next year she didn't show and we learned that she had passed away…she was only 33.”
Four other ambassadors; Marisa Escobar,Jeffrey Mark,William Porter,Daniel Portillo and Darlaine Gibson,executive director of the El Paso ACS,joined the Wootens.
With a cowboy hat and a Texas scarf to identify her state,Sandra mixed right in with thousands of people in a sea of purple,which is the color for the ACS.
Printed on the shirt with the logo of the ASC read,“Relay for Life” and on the other side,“Celebration on the Hill.”
Despite cancer being the reason that brought them all together,the crowd was a massive mix of all types of people celebrating life with food,music and entertainment as people signed up to walk laps for the relay that would last all day and into the night.
The opening ceremonies were in honor of all the survivors that made it to Washington,D. C.
Over 2,ooo survivors were present,all of which started the first leg of the relay.
For Tom Bondi,43 from Illinois,the beginning of the relay was an intense moment for him,“For me,being a survivor,the opening lap was really powerful for me to see the number of survivors here.”
With a sound of pain in his voice and soft,worn,blue eyes,he mentions that he is a survivor of prostate cancer and being here for the celebration was most important to give support and to press his congressman that the fight against cancer is something that can not be overlooked.
Throughout the crowd,voices of rejoice and mornings were heard with interrupting moments of joyful laughter.
People were meeting people and survivors were meeting other survivors,as they shared stories of battle and triumph of this deadly disease.
Everyone here either fought cancer or knew someone who was inflected by cancer.
Many of the ambassadors attempted with great stride and envelope full of letters to get their local congressman to come down to the tents to sit and chat with their hometown peoples.
Some prevailed and with in the crowd,men and women in suit and tie could be seen visiting with the people of purple.
Although,in many cases,as in the one for El Paso,attempts failed or were not fully succeeded.
Sandra Wooten,along with the rest of the ambassadors from El Paso walked up the Hill to the office of their local congressman,Silvestre Reyes.
They had not heard any response from his office in El Paso,nor here on the Hill.
“Each one of us here in the group wrote a letter to our congressman,my wife and myself a couple of times,but received no answer,” said Donald Wooten.
They were told at the office by senior legislative assistant,Philip LoPiccolo,“It's been hard to get to many of the letters due to the back up in Anthrax testing.”
At first,declining meeting with the group because of a conference call,Rep. Silvestre Reyes,D-Texas,appeared.
After taking several pictures with the group,Reyes shared his sympathy and compassion by confessing his personal tie with cancer.
“I have lost several people close to me,including my grandparents,three uncles and a couple of aunts,” Reyes.
Sandra Wooten gave Reyes all the letters brought to him from his supporters in El Paso who are involved with the ACS.
Along with 60 letters,the group presented a miniature replica of the bus that has traveled through 48 states and has been signed,by more than 130,000 cancer survivors and has been re-covered eight times to fit the names from across the country.
The miniature bus had the signatures of the six ambassadors that came from El Paso.
Written in capital letters along with the names was the word,“Believe,” the group's slogan,which Sandra Wooten knows is a key weapon in fighting cancer.
Reyes assured the ambassadors he would read each and every letter sent to his office and would try to get down to the tent to visit.
He later sent his assistant down to mingle with the purple crowd.
Many different bills were being lobbied for many different cancers,but they all shared a common interest,to get congress to give more money to organizations to make testing and check-ups more economically available for the prevention of cancer.
Daniel Portillo,one of the El Paso ambassadors,who also lost his mother to lung cancer,stresses the relevance of prevention,“An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure.”
Aside from funding for medical technology and medicine,faith and support plays a major role in the battle to fight cancer.
“I think faith and comfort from others have a lot to do with fighting cancer and making it go into remission,” said Portillo.
Reginald Ho,from Kaneoke Hawaii,who has been a volunteer since 1964,tells how essential it is to pass bills such as The Holmes/Kennedy Bill which relates to colon cancer,“90 percent of colon cancer can be prevented with regular surveillance,which is why it is important that these bills are passed to fund tests and monitor people so we can prevent cancer before it starts.”
When nighttime fell over the crowd,luminaries were dedicated to cancer patients and survivors and those who lost the battle.
All around the Reflecting Pool were small,white paper bags,illuminated by flickering candlelight.
After the luminaries were lit,a prayer and a moment of silence followed.
There a torch was lit to mark the laps the volunteers walked during the celebration.
Thousands of spectators and media watched as the torch made its way around the pool.
Songs of remorse and comfort followed as volunteers walked the lap while others stood glaring into the candlelight reflecting on memories and hardships.
For Sandra Wooten and her family,who represent many in El Paso and across the nation fighting cancer,it was all too real and surreal at the same time.
“Being here and seeing all of this,is so wonderful,” she said. “It feels good to know that there is such a great presence and this many people helping and comforting each other.”
As the crowd died down,Sandra Wooten and her family walked the lap of the pool taking in all the day's events as the candlelight reflected off the water and the Capitol sat up high in the background.
It was almost a full moon and the fading sounds of the remaining crowd cheered as the band played,“I'm Proud to be an American,” while the tents came down and the closing of the Celebration on the Hill approached its end.