Cancer: “I had to do something about it”

Relay for Life
Relay For Life co-chairs Chelsea Fahr, left, and Kristen Lohse spread awareness of the event on the UC Davis campus.

Laura Housfeld was a UC Davis student working toward her degree in communication studies when she had her first American Cancer Society “Relay For Life” experience. It was part of a commitment she and three other students made when they launched a new campus club – Colleges Against Cancer. For all four club founders, cancer was personal. For Housfeld, it was one of the ways she honored her mother, Linda Housfeld, who died of breast cancer.

“I felt like I had to do something about it, and this seemed like a great idea,” she says.

But she honestly didn’t know what to expect at her first relay. She knew that she or one of her teammates would be running or walking on a track nonstop over a 24-hour period. She knew that the first lap would be run by cancer survivors only and there would be a “luminaria” of lit candles at dusk to remember those who have died of the disease. She knew there would be a closing event where everyone would commit in his or her own way to fighting back against cancer. What she didn’t know was just how exhilarating and, in the end, meaningful it would be.

“After that first relay, I was hooked. Nothing else I had done before helped me feel more like I was doing something so personally connected and important about cancer. I just knew I had to bring the event to Davis,” Housfeld says.

A success by every standard

She was certain the strong sense of caring and community at Davis would be a natural fit for a relay. However, of all the options ACS provides for raising funds for cancer research and patient programs, proposals for new relays are scrutinized most carefully. Relays are the organization’s most successful fundraisers in part because of the high standards set for establishing new ones. Each planning team has to demonstrate clear commitment, organization, teamwork and, most of all, passion.

Beyond Relay

The UC Davis Relay For Life is just one example of the strong link between the American Cancer Society and UC Davis, since ACS and UC Davis Cancer Center join forces throughout the year with the common goal of increasing cancer awareness and prevention.

Dr. Tuscano
Joseph Tuscano

The cancer center’s peer navigator program, for instance, which matches newly diagnosed cancer center patients with “cancer coaches” for guidance and resources, was developed with guidance from the ACS. Joseph Tuscano, a UC Davis physician and researcher on blood cancers, will be featured on one of the ACS’s upcoming “doc talks” to share new findings about leukemia. A cancer center team will participate in the ACS’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer run/walk in October. And the ACS will provide resources to patients at the cancer center’s National Cancer Survivors Week picnic on May 30.

The ACS also has a strong commitment to funding innovative research. Nearly $900,000 in 2008 was provided for cancer center investigations, including projects on improving care for cancer pain, culture and palliative care and increasing colon cancer screening.

Dr. vonFriederich Fitzwater
Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater

“Our ties are wide and deep, and we’re very proud of that,” said Marlene von Friederichs-Fitzwater, director of the cancer center Outreach Research and Education Program and a frequent presenter at ACS regional meetings. “Our strengths complement each other well in the fight to end cancer.”

“The UC Davis students who first approached us clearly met all the criteria for launching a relay, but it was their enthusiasm that really won us over,” says Adrienne Record, Relay For Life manager for the American Cancer Society in California. “What has surprised us is that six years later there is still that same level of enthusiasm among the new event leads. By every standard we set, they are a big success.”

Housfeld set a high standard for relays at her alma mater. In fact, during its inaugural year, in 2004, she says, “we blew all of our fundraising targets out of the water,” raising $55,000 and involving 89 teams of eight-to-15 participants each. That success is still a source of great pride for Housfeld, who now works in fund development for the ACS in Oakland.

“The Davis relay has been the highest earning college relay in California ever since,” she adds.

Record says that the UC Davis team is always neck-and-neck with UCLA for top college earners in the state, and the Aggies have so far always won that friendly competition in the end. She credits their success in part with the fact that the planning team meetings never seem to feel like work: “They truly have a lot of fun with it.”

A new strategy for a tough economy

Now, psychology student Kristen Lohse and international relations student Chelsea Fahr are leading the relay planning and, once again, they are expecting another big year, even in a tough economy.

“It has been a little harder this year to get sponsors and companies to commit,” Lohse says. “But we adjusted our strategy. We’re asking for more small donations from more people, and so far that is working.”

Lohse, Fahr and their team are going to community events, like farmers’ markets, and setting up a booth where sponsors and donors can sign up to participate. They are contacting local businesses for donations. And they are asking everyone they know whose life has been touched by cancer to help.

“Unfortunately, that’s pretty much everyone,” Lohse says. “It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t dealt with the disease themselves or who doesn’t know of someone who has.”

Confidence for this and future years

Those who want to lend their support to this year’s relay can find out how on the event Web site at or by calling one of the event chairs, Kristen Lohse at (530) 320-2173 or Chelsea Fahr at (925) 788-0495.

Lohse is confident UC Davis will be the top earner again, especially since they currently have 200 teams signed up – the largest number yet. She’s also certain that the tradition of enthusiasm will pass easily to the next team. Right after this year’s relay, to be held on Toomey Field on April 4 and 5, they will meet and select next year’s planning committee.

“We want to make the transition quickly so there is no downtime,” she says. “Cancer never rests. So why should we?”