Taking It To the Track

Martin Guenther looks at life a little differently now. Every birthday, every holiday and every day with his 5-year-old daughter Kate is a blessing. In 2010, Kate was diagnosed with a childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. Guenther says hearing the diagnosis for the first time was surreal.

“Childhood cancer was foreign to us,” says Guenther. “When you get that diagnosis, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience.”

Kate was a normal, active 2-year-old with a seemingly normal potbelly. However, during a trip to St. Louis to visit Guenther’s brother, who was a radiologist, Guenther and his wife began to get worried when Kate’s legs began to swell. Guenther’s brother performed an ultrasound and found a tumor the size of a football in Kate’s tummy. The Guenthers, who have three other children, immediately drove back to Kansas City to Children’s Mercy Hospital, where they first heard the word “cancer.”

“The first initial days were really wild, and we had to figure out how to juggle simple things in daily life, like picking up our son from school, with Kate getting treatment,” says Guenther. “The separation for us as a family during that time was difficult.”

Guenther and his wife began to notice how many children were affected by cancer. They found it alarming to see so many families similar to theirs in the hallways, and they knew they wanted to do something to help others.

One day Guenther went to the bank to set up a fund to help pay for Kate’s medical bills and expenses. While there, he heard about The American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Overland Park/Leawood and was invited to participate as a team member. Guenther didn’t hesitate.

Above: Bob Burns, chairman of Relay for Life
of Overland Park/Leawood.

Below: Volunteers and participants recently attended the American Cancer Society’s kick-off event for the 2013 Relay for Life of Overland Park/Leawood.

“When we heard about Relay For Life and what it stands for, we knew we wanted to be involved,” he says. “You don’t have to have cancer or even know someone who has cancer to participate.”

According to the American Cancer Society, Relay For Life events include more than 4 million people in 20 countries each year. Relay events began in 1985 in Tacoma, Wash., thanks to Dr. Gordy Klatt, who walked and ran for 24 hours around a track to raise $27,000 for the American Cancer Society. The next year, 340 people joined Klatt in his efforts.

Since then, Relay For Life has expanded internationally to raise more than $4 billion to fight cancer. The inspiring community events are led by volunteers such as Bob Burns, who works tirelessly to organize teams to fundraise and walk around a track for 12 hours while participating in fun and meaningful activities for friends, families, co-workers, neighbors and anyone who wants to help fight cancer.

“Relay For Life is a very personal thing, and everyone has a connection to cancer,” says Burns, who was 24 when his mother unexpectedly died from pancreatic cancer. “After Mom passed away, it was an emotional time, and Relay was a way to remember her and do something in her honor together.”

Nine years later, Burns is chairman of the Relay For Life of Overland Park/Leawood event and continues to join his brother, sisters and father to walk the track in memory of his mother with their team, Burning the Midnight Oil.

Burns says he has met people from all walks of life through Relay who stand together in support of the fight against cancer. He hopes the upcoming Relay can gather more people and teams in Overland Park and Leawood who want to help. The organization’s 2013 goal is 400 participants and 40 teams.

“This is not just an issue of helping those with cancer or remembering those who have passed away,” says Burns. “This is about helping those who will have cancer in the future.”

Burns is proud that Relay funds contribute to American Cancer Society research programs and patient services such as Hope Lodge® which provides free lodging during treatment, or Look Good…Feel Better, which provides free wigs.

“I just want more people to be educated about the American Cancer Society if they ever hear those words,” says Burns. “All they have to do is come to the Relay to see that, learn more and get hooked.”

For Guenther, getting hooked on Relay For Life was easy. All it took was watching his bald, toddling daughter make a lap around the track in a too-big, purple T-shirt with “Survivor” on the front.

“This has been a rich, wonderful and symbolic experience for our family,” says Guenther, who now invites everyone he knows to participate in Relay. “We want to let people know that this isn’t just a fundraiser. It’s about, ‘Hey, there are kids with cancer and let’s do something.’”

Guenther isn’t sure what the future holds for Kate’s fight with cancer after six rounds of chemotherapy, intense surgery, radiation and antibody therapy. However, he says that his new perspective on life was worth the trial.

“Right now, she’s energetic and loves to dance and swim and run around and wrestle her brothers, so we feel blessed,” says Guenther.


Relay For Life 2013

The American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Overland Park/Leawood will take place from noon to midnight June 8 at Lakewood Middle School in Overland Park. Corporate sponsors include Black & Veatch, ITT Tech, Terra Family Community, 1st National Bank, Walgreens and Capitol Federal Savings. For more information, contact Laura Horton at (816) 218-7276 or visit cancer.org.

photos: Gene Starr