This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Caldwell County Relay for Life, the local branch of the American Cancer Society’s signature fundraiser, takes place tonight through the morning at South Caldwell High School, starting at 6 p.m. Relay participants are fiercely loyal to the yearly event, saying it changes lives in addition to raising funds for cancer research.

These are two stories of those lives changed.

The survivor

When doctors diagnosed her cancer, Teresa Larson put her fists up and didn’t stop fighting until it was gone. The Gamewell Elementary teacher made it through seven months of treatment without taking a leave of absence.

And when she was asked to speak at a Relay For Life fundraiser in January, she jumped in with both feet. Plenty of cancer survivors lead Relay teams, but she started heading Team Larson before she had even finished radiation treatments.

“Most people need to take a break before they start on something like this, but not her,” said Julie Overby, the co-chair of Caldwell County Relay For Life.

As of this week, Team Larson has raised $5,521 — second in the county only to Blue Ridge Electric.

Larson’s ductal carcinoma was diagnosed in June 2012. She had just turned 40 and gotten her first mammogram.

Larson worked with the school system and her doctors to keep working while she was sick. She’d take Thursdays and Fridays off for treatment, have the weekend to recuperate, and be back at it Monday morning.

You can’t claim to be in remission until the cancer has been gone for five years, but there has been no clinical evidence of Larson’s cancer since March.

Larson wanted to keep pushing and keep life normal for one person: her 6-year-old daughter, Kayanna.

“She needed to see that I was going to be okay,” Larson said. “I didn’t want her seeing me just being at home, laying around, that Mom can’t do anything. For her, she needed to know that things were OK and they were as normal as they could be.”

It ended up being a learning experience for her students, too, she said. The third-graders – who saw their teacher start the year with hair and end it without, who brought her gifts of bandannas and wigs – learned that someone who’s fighting for their life doesn’t have to stop living.

As for her involvement with Relay for Life, it all started with being asked to speak. Larson had been involved with the event in college, but she was in Caldwell County for 16 years without giving it a thought. But having cancer changed everything.

“It’s important, I think, if you are a cancer survivor,” Larson said. “You can say, ‘You know, I’ve kicked cancer’s butt. Now there’s something else I can do.’”

The lovebirds

John Caldwell could have done one thing differently.

When the Relay For Life representative came in asking for donations from the Food Lion he manages, he could’ve said no. When the Relay team at Trinity United Methodist Church asked him to join, he could’ve put it off until the next year.

John Caldwell could’ve done differently, but he might not have met his wife.

“We would not have met, no,” Leigh Anne Caldwell said. “There’s no way.”

John and Leigh Anne were both at Relay for Life in 2011, on different teams. While there, they were introduced by a mutual friend, Tracy Jenkins, a cancer survivor who teaches with Leigh Anne at Baton Elementary.

Two weeks later, they went on their first date, to Texas Roadhouse. In December 2012, they got married.

Now the Caldwells finish each other’s sentences, are raising a blended family, keep the newlywed habit of sneaking glances at each other as they speak, and co-chair Team Baton for Relay For Life 2013.

The couple love Relay for all the merits it has on its own. It’s a way of helping their community and a way of honoring their family and friends — including Jenkins — who have fought cancer. But, of course, it has a double meaning for them.

“It does mean two times as much,” Leigh Anne said, “because that’s where we met.”