Relay For Life lauds, supports cancer survivors in Bradenton

BRADENTON -- Rita Wonders and Jan Baither have been friends more than 20 years, but they had lost touch with one another when they each were diagnosed with cancer six years ago.

As they each underwent treatments, fate stepped in and reunited them during a trip to Walmart one October day in 2010.

"Once a friend, always a friend," Wonders said.

Wonders said it was great to reconnect with her friend, and the two quickly learned each had undergone surgery within a month of one another.

"We're both very lucky people. I had ovarian cancer and she had lung cancer," Wonders said.

"Both silent killers," Baither added.

The women agreed they picked up right where they had left off when their lives had taken them on different paths.

They walked hand in hand at times Saturday afternoon as they joined the survivor's lap.

They weren't alone.

Thirty teams participated in the American Cancer Society Relay For Life of Bradenton at Saint Stephens Episcopal School as they walked through the night to help raise awareness for the disease and more than $41,000 to help the fight for a cure. The walk began at 3 p.m. Saturday with a finish time of

7 a.m. Sunday.

Wonders and Baither were among the dozens of men and women who have survived cancer who kicked off the event by walking the first lap around the track. The duo have participated in most of the local relays and in years past have formed their own team, they said.

"That's where we have met so many people, both survivors and those who have lost someone," Baither said. "It's about the illumination of cancer because cancer knows no boundaries."

Pastor Stan Pavkovich of Church of the Cross of Bradenton shared how the disease rocked his world in 2013, first when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and then, in the middle of her reconstructive surgery, he was diagnosed with stage three throat cancer.

"To say that 2013 was a bad year was an understatement," Pavkovich said.

On Saturday, he said he thanked God to be cancer-free and shared some of what he and his wife had learned.

"Refocus on what is important in life. It sounds so generic but get back to the basics of what is important and let go of some of those petty things that may divide you among loved ones or simply rob you of joy," Pavkovich said.

Prior to being diagnosed, Pavkovich said he had a failing.

"The second thing I learned is that I had to learn to trust people and let go of control," Pavkovich said. "Through my illness I had to trust people and doctors that I did not know."

His illness also forced him to give up some responsibilities at the church he thought only he could do, he said.

Team leader Larry Oczkowski has been cancer-free for 21 years after his non-Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosis 31 years ago.

"The primary objective here is creating awareness, so perhaps one day we can say this is the last relay" Oczkowski said.

After Oczkowski's treatment, he learned the of impact the American Cancer Society can have through his own experience.

"I went through a bone-marrow transfer in 1997," Oczkowski said. "And little did I know that one of the experimental drugs I was using was created by a grant from the American Cancer Society."

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.