Co-leading from Experience

Co-leads of UH Hilo’s Relay for Life event bring experience in unexpected ways

Editor-in-Chief Peter Holden Chao

Relay for life organizers

Take one look at Alexandra Koenig and Maya Sunshine Bernardo, the co-leads for next year’s 14th Annual Relay for Life, and you’ll probably notice their smiles. Bernardo, a surfer, and Koenig, an adventurer, are juniors at UH Hilo, carrying bags heavy with books to come and meet me. They wore matching t-shirts today, a testament to the team they comprise, with the words, “Relay for Life, Fighting Cancer since 1985.” The two were a part of Relay for Life this year; Bernardo, the head of ceremonies, and Koenig, the luminary chair, were part of a team that raised more than $16,000 for cancer research, but this isn’t the only experience they bring to the table.

“Cancer has always been a big issue. I’ve had family members and people close to me who have had cancer. Some survived; some didn’t.” said Bernardo. “I feel like it’s my part. I should help out in some type of way. Cancer affects everyone; even if you don’t have cancer, there are a lot of people affected by it. You need to start getting involved.”

At this year’s Relay for Life on March 8, Koenig shared her story during the Luminaria ceremony. The ceremony represents an opportunity to honor a life touched by cancer. Paper bags are decorated to memorialize those lost to cancer and celebrate those who have survived. The luminaries are lined up and lit, leading to a large sign reading, “HOPE.” This year the luminaries shed light on something lesser known: Koenig is a cancer survivor.

Koenig was diagnosed with cancer at two years and 10 months. On Thanksgiving day, 2000, Koenig underwent a left nephrectomy: a surgical procedure to remove her kidney and, with it, Wilms tumor, a cancer that primarily affects children. At the time her mother was pregnant with her second child. “Welcome to parenting,” said Koenig.

“I had a concept when I was diagnosed that it was different, that this was not a normal thing. Then I started preschool and I knew that it really wasn’t normal,” said Koenig. “My little friends and I would make jokes about our feeding tubes and being bald, but at two and three years old we didn’t know anything different.”

Over a year and a half of full rounds of chemotherapy and radiation seemed to fend off the cancer, but at age 14, Koenig relapsed. For 21 days, Koenig was placed on a ventilator, in a state of comatose. Her younger brother, Nicholas, never left her hospital room. “Even if you’re not directly affected, even if you’re just helping someone, it still takes a toll. It’s still hard even just being there,” said Koenig. “At an event like Relay, you have people who can relate to you, that you can lean on, and who understand what you’re going through without having to verbalize it. They just kind of get it.”

The Relay for Life event at UH Hilo runs from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. to symbolize that the battle against cancer never rests. For Koenig, “When we do the 6 to 6, we have to stay up and on our feet during that time, dancing and doing activities, to represent the time that our loved ones are in the hospital fighting. So we can stand up for that timespan, fight, and raise money.” Koenig continued, “We don’t have to do it all the time, but people who are fighting and battling have to stand up and do it that whole time.”

The symbolism of the overnight event parallels Koenig’s life. The relapse at 14-years-old is by no measure the end of her battle. Like Relay, visits to the doctor have become an annual event. “There’s a numbness, kind of an empty feeling. I don’t know if that’s different for me compared to a mother for example, who’s diagnosed in her mid 30’s or 40’s, but I’ve been dealing with it my whole life,” said Koenig. “I’ve lost many friends who I went through treatment with. At the time, as a child, you don’t understand why. You think it’s a norm for you not to see your friend again the next day.”

“It’s a numb pain, that’s always going to be there, because you know it’s always going to happen,” continued Koenig. “It would be nice to have a cure, and one day hopefully that does happen, but for right now, there’s a numbness because it’s going to keep happening. It’s a continuous worry.”

“There’s always something that’s going to happen. There’s never an ending: ‘you’re cured, you’re good, your life is awesome, you don’t have to worry about it anymore.’ There’s always a next step,” said Koenig. “For example, the medicine I took for chemotherapy, Doxorubicin, it’s a cardiac medicine that you use for chemotherapy. They have kids who were completely cured, 20 years out, but at the 22, 23, year mark of remission they drop dead of cardiac failure. The chemotherapy affects the cardiac muscle that much.”

“More personal in a female aspect, you radiate on a small body cavity, your kidneys, low back, sit behind your ovaries, your pelvis, so there’s a lot of girls who have had the same cancer I had or who have had full body radiation and their ovaries and uterus are shot with radiation, so no fertility. At last year’s chemotherapy checkup I was taken to a fertility specialist and we ran a bunch of blood tests. After the appointment I called one of my friends who had full-body radiation and she was like, ‘Dude! They told me the same thing.’ We had a blood test, got it back, and found out we had been in menopause, no fertility chances, for like the past 10 years,” said Koenig. “It’s always one thing after another.”

“I’m not scared because I’m doing the things that I want to do in life in case the unforeseeable happens,” said Koenig. “I’m hopeful because of the amount of chances that I had to slip away. I was diagnosed as Stage 4, they sat my parents down and told them, ‘she’s Stage 4, that’s worst of the worst, sorry about it.’ When I relapsed at 14, being on a ventilator and sustaining machines for a month, that’s a long time. My muscles should’ve gone into atrophy, I should’ve been dead. I have a lot of friends who have the same freaky stories.”

Koenig and Bernardo are looking to carry on the tradition of funding cancer research in hopes for a cure. “The first year I was here, I was surprised to see the turnout and even that UH Hilo was a Colleges Against Cancer and Relay for Life participant. That made me really happy,” said Koenig. “I was really surprised when I joined the committee at the amount of kids who had their own story here and the amount of work they put in to make this event possible. Our past co-lead was a student named Jualin, and the amount of time and work she put in during her two years as Relay lead was incredible.”

“We want to get a good start for next year,” said Bernardo. “We’re graduating next year so we want to make Relay for Life awesome.” The two are looking to target clubs, sports teams, and the community. “We want to get Relay for Life out there. Opening up the opportunity for students to know what it is and if they want to help they can,” Bernardo continued.

Different teams participate in Relay for Life fundraising. “A lot of cultural clubs make their foods, we sell t-shirts, we have a pie-in-the-face contest, BOMB came with a Nerf gun video game, and Student Housing made beaded bracelets,” said Koenig.

Among the most popular events at Relay for Life are the Relay Royalty, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, where teams have a candidate dress up to participate in a pageant. “We have a dance section and that can go really well… or really provocatively. They come out and dance in the crowd and people will just throw money at them and whoever collects the most money wins the pageant,” said Koenig. “We’re going to continue the dance parties and we’re going to have a lot more food. We’re going to have a lot more fun this year, it’s going to be a lot more upbeat, and we really want to drive home the meaning of Relay and why we’re here and why we do the things we do.”

“We want to add excitement, we want to put something new out there,” Koenig added. “I would like to see people stay past the midnight hour. We usually have a lot of people and community members come and participate. We have a lot of people come at 6 p.m., they have food, have fun, and hangout, then by 11:30 or midnight it kind of trickles off. I understand that 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. is a long event, but I would like to see people stay through the whole event.”

“It’s hard,” Bernardo said of the event. “Especially as a student, we have a lot of obligations, duties, and things we have to accomplish. Being able to dedicate just one night to stay up 24 hours for one thing, it's kind of cool to have a whole bunch of people doing the same thing. We’re not just staying up because we want to. Knowing it’s for a good cause, it helps you.” Bernardo continued, “Relay for life is a way to form a new community out of our bigger community. It’s getting to know each other, having a common goal to raise money to find cures for cancer, and just to connect.”

“Looking at people, you can’t see what’s on the inside,” added Koenig. “I get, ‘you don’t look like the stereotypical cancer patient,’ I want to break that stereotype because cancer affects everyone. Everyone needs help and aid in that battle.”

For more information or to volunteer with Relay for Life at UH Hilo email UHHrelay@hawaii.edu