Friday night, Joyce Gelhaus will be walking with her team from Van Diest Medical Center in the Relay for Life. But first, she'll lead off the Survivor's Lap as an Honorary Chairman for the annual event.
She won't speak in front of the group she said, fearing the emotion of the moment might make it difficult. But she, along with other survivors will take the first lap around the track, honoring their individual battles with cancer, the support they received from families and friends and their determination to beat a disease that has claimed so many.
The Hamilton County Relay for Life will be held Friday night between 6 p.m. and midnight at the Webster City High School track.
Gelhaus, the laboratory director at Van Diest Medical Center, has long been a team member and leader in the Relay for Life, even before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. And she has taken part in the event every year since.
"The Relay for Life is always very meaningful. You know you have the support and you know you aren't the only one fighting the battle," she said. "There are thousands of others fighting cancer."
"It's still very emotional, even after eight or nine years," she said.
The annual fundraising event is an opportunity to let people know that there is support available to those diagnosed with cancer, she said.
"They're not alone," she said. "The American Cancer Society furnishes so many things for cancer patients. They help with transportation and wigs for patients who lose their hair. That's what the Relay is all about. It's not just the research it funds. That's important. But it's also all of the supportive things they do for patients."
She encouraged area residents to stop out at the track Friday night and maybe even to take a lap around the track.
"You don't have to have a team, just come out and walk with us. Enjoy the entertainment, the food and activities. It really is a family event," she said, adding that members of her family would be attending as well.
Gelhaus' own journey through cancer treatment began when her annual mammogram in December of 2003 showed something suspicious and she was called back in for a retest. About a week later, her physician suggested she have an ultrasound.
"The test came out OK. They couldn't pick up anything on the ultrasound," she said. But the clinic felt something still wasn't right.
"They said they weren't happy with the ultrasound and wanted to send it on to a specialist in Des Moines to look at," Gelhaus said. The specialist soon told her that a biopsy was needed. Gelhaus said she already had a feeling about the outcome of the biopsy.
"My mother, two first cousins and my grandmother all had breast cancer. There was just too much history there to overlook it," she said.
When the biopsy results came back positive, Gelhaus called her physician, who immediately set things in motion for her surgery. Her procedure - a quadectomy involved removing a quadrant of her breast. During the surgery at Iowa Methodist Medical Center, the surgeon also checked out her lymph nodes which were found to be cancer free. She spent 10 days recuperating at her sister's home before returning home to Webster City.
On the advice of her oncologist, a month after her surgery, she began courses of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Every three weeks, she would travel to Des Moines for the chemo - four treatments in all. She also had six weeks of radiation.
The treatments took their toll on Gelhaus, who worked two out of the three weeks between her chemo sessions. She credits her staff in the lab for taking over many of the duties that she would have routinely handled. In fact, she found great support from all of the hospital's employees as well as from her church family. When she lost her hair from the treatments and she started to wear hats, many of the church women would wear hats to worship services to show their support, she said.
Today, she is cancer free. She gives back and offers support to others who are facing the same battle she faced. Many who come through the hospital find a friendly and encouraging voice in Gelhaus.
"I find myself talking to cancer patients," she said. "There have been some ladies with breast cancer and I've shared my story with them. I think it gives people hope."
"I tell them, 'Hey, I'm proof that the treatment works. There is hope and there is support.'"