Health & Fitness

Overnight Relay for Life honors cancer patients and survivors

When a Wichita real estate office got involved with the American Cancer Society’s local Relay for Life event in 1996, it was because agent Tom Depperschmidt had lost his wife to cancer.

Seventeen summers later, the local offices of Prudential Dinning-Beard continue to be represented by a team, with Depperschmidt often serving as captain or co-captain.

He can’t repay his friends and family who were there for him and his wife, Ginny, as she underwent cancer treatment and then for him and his three young children after Ginny died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, said Depperschmidt.

That “debt,” he said, is one of the reasons he’s been a steadfast member of his company’s team, which has raised more than $130,000 with various fundraisers over the years.

Relay for Life — an overnight walk that symbolizes the phases of a patient’s journey with cancer — has been an annual fundraising event for the American Cancer Society since 1985. The donations fund cancer research and programs to support cancer patients.

The memories of his wife’s journey with the disease and thinking of others who continue to be affected by cancer is why Depperschmidt works the crowd at the company’s annual fundraising cookout and puts in the long hours of organizing it beforehand and cleaning up afterward.

It’s why he has hand-decorated hundreds of luminarias over the years that his co-workers and others have purchased with a donation to remember those who’ve either survived or lost their battle to cancer.

It’s why he gets teary-eyed as he looks at a past photo of a survivors’ walk, which opens the Relay for Life event every year.

He also does it because he’s guided by a simple principle: “I believe we’re put here on this Earth to do all the good we can.”

Life was pretty good for the Depperschmidts. Ginny loved her job as a medical technologist for St. Francis Hospital. They’d been making their home in Wichita for more than 20 years, after one of Tom’s best friends suggested they move here. That friend died of cancer, too, a few years ago.

After working two decades for KG&E, Tom Depperschmidt became a real estate agent at Prudential in 1993. In early 1994, Ginny traveled to China to adopt a daughter to join their two young sons.

About a year later, Ginny was bothered with abdominal pains. A doctor initially diagnosed her condition as soft tissue damage, probably caused by a seat belt in a minor auto accident, Depperschmidt remembered.

But Ginny actually had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The cancer originates in the lymphatic system, which is the body’s disease-fighting network. She was diagnosed with the cancer on Feb. 9, 1995, her 49th birthday. When she died nine months after her diagnosis, Tom was left alone to raise their children, then ages 15, 12 and 4½. He’s never remarried.

For the past 18 years, Prudential’s primary Relay for Life fundraising event has been an annual May cookout. More than 200 fellow real estate agents and lenders and staff from neighboring companies at Prudential’s west office at 35th Street North and Ridge Road tend to pack the tables and chairs set up in the parking lot. The two-hour event has averaged about $2,500 to $3,000, with a suggested $5-a-plate donation, Depperschmidt said.

“The hardest thing is the cleanup, when you’re worn out from the event, but then I think of people dealing with leukemia or other cancers and how hard it is,” Depperschmidt said. He remembers his wife would sit through hours of treatment and later work her eight-hour shift. “She’d say she was fine, but I knew she wasn’t.”

He’s seen the size of Prudential’s team during the actual Relay for Life dwindle a bit over the years, with so many organizations now holding similar fundraising walks or runs. But Depperschmidt remains a stalwart participant with a core group of about 10 others.

“I don’t worry about (the participation) that much,” he said. “I’m just proud that the company steps up and backs us for these fundraisers.”

Depperschmidt finds the symbolism of Relay for Life especially poignant, he said.

According to the American Cancer Society, the relay starts at dusk to symbolize the time a person is diagnosed with cancer. As the relay progresses, the evening becomes colder and darker — much like a patient’s journey with cancer may seem. The time between 1 and 2 a.m. represents the beginning of treatment. Like the cancer patient, relay participants must persevere to finish the event. The time between 4 and 5 a.m. represents completing treatment, and the rising sun is a reminder that life will go on.

The public is invited to attend the survivors’ lap held during the opening ceremony and the sundown luminaria ceremony to honor survivors and caregivers, as well as those who died because of cancer.

Pam Warren, a breast cancer survivor from Derby, said she participates because donations benefit patients and research of all types of cancer and because of the race’s analogy to her own struggle with cancer.

“Getting diagnosed is very surreal,” said Warren, a retired schoolteacher who was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. “There are a lot of dark days and you’re tired when they put that poison into your body. Staying clear until the sun comes up does show there’s light.”