by Joan Conrow
Throughout the past year, while in treatment for a second bout of breast cancer, Rowena Tachibana found comfort in one word: hope.
“Whenever I felt down, I would focus on that word and it would help me out of my downward slide,” says Tachibana, a Hanama`ulu resident. “And visualization is so important. I focused on visualizing my chemotherapy medicine as Pac Man eating up all my cancer cells. That really helped me.”
She’s looking forward to sharing those tips for coping, and much more, at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraising and educational event, where she’ll also be singing with her cousin. It starts at 6 p.m. on Friday, April 28 at Hanapepe stadium, and runs all night long to symbolize the arduous cancer journey.
As a self-described “breast cancer survivor times two,” Tachibana says she was honored when her oncologist, Dr. Aileen Denny, asked her to co-chair the luminaria ceremony. It’s a pivotal part of the event, in which people light candles placed in sand-filled paper bags to create glowing tributes to those who have experienced cancer.
“Some people design them at home, some on the spot,” says Relay for Life coordinator Nalani Brun. “Some are really elaborate. Some have message to people they miss or words of encouragement.”
Adds Tachibana: “It has such meaning for a survivor like me. It’s a time of reflection and celebration.”
But Tachibana, who recently lost her father to pancreatic cancer, also sees the ceremony as “a time of remembrance and to honor people we’ve lost through this dreaded disease.”
Mililani Mels Tejada, a breast cancer survivor who recently participated in a clinical trial with Dr. Denny, will be singing at the luminaria ceremony. “I’ve pretty much decided I’m going to do a church hymn,” says Tejada, who continued to perform as a strolling musician, ukulele in hand, at the St. Regis Hotel throughout her recovery.
As a member of the Ke Akua Mana church choir in Kapa`a, Tejada sang a lot of church hymns during the challenging year of treatment. “I’ve never actually experienced anything like this, when you’re sick and there’s nothing you can really do but weather the storm,” she says.
“It was my faith in God that basically pulled me through,” Tejada says. “That, and not turning away any help. It was very humbling for me. In the past I was usually the one giving help.”
Tejada felt blessed to share her deep spiritual beliefs with her oncologist. “It was my first experience in all my years of going to doctors’ appointments that I was able to pray with my doctor, and that just set the tone. I felt in good hands with God and my doctor.”
Her cancer diagnosis also coincided with the birth of her granddaughter, which gave Tejada another boost. “I just have so much to live for,” she says. “I’m feeling really good.”
Both Tejada and Tachibana say they wanted to volunteer at Relay for Life because they had received so much help from others, including the American Cancer Society. “During this whole past year I was supported whole-heartedly by the ACS,” Tachibana says, noting that the agency even assisted with the costs of her plane fare to Honolulu for radiation treatments. “This is my little way of giving back.”
In addition to her luminaria co-hosting duties, Tachibana will once again be part of the Lihu`e Christian Church team, one of many groups that come up with ACS fundraising ideas, including selling items at the event. Educational booths and displays will also be set up, giving survivors, caretakers, families and friends a chance to share, learn and express their triumphs and sorrows.
“They always start off Relay with survivors doing a walk, and then caregivers and survivors walk together,” Tachibana says. “It’s really a chicken skin event. Relay for Life is a very emotional experience.”