One step closer

More than 200 Luminaria bags lined the OCI track for the Luminaria lap at dusk.
More than 200 Luminaria bags lined the OCI track for the Luminaria lap at dusk. Sierra Star

Eric Smith decided the timing was right. His girlfriend of four years, Debbie Barber, only had three one-minute breast cancer radiation treatments to go. And because the couple had been Relay for Life participants for years, it made perfect sense for Eric to pop the question during last May’s Luminaria ceremony, which honors cancer survivors and remembers those who lost the battle.

On one special Luminaria bag, set amongst others that circled the track, Eric, 51, simply wrote: Debbie, marry me. “I was just so overwhelmed with the day that when I saw the bag, I couldn’t process it,” recalled Debbie, 53.

Eric came to the rescue, quickly stepping in front of her, and looking intently into her eyes said, “since you’ve been dealing with cancer, do you think you can deal with me for the rest of your life?”

Three months later, on Aug. 6, 2016, the two were married in Bandit Town, pronounced man and wife by Dustin, son of Relay for Life co-chair Linda Maddox. The happy couple met 13 years ago while working for Bernards Construction, where they are still employed, he as construction superintendent and she in labor compliance. Today, they’re not only celebrating being newlyweds, but the fact that Debbie has been cancer-free about a year.

Nine teams participated in the 18th Annual EMC Relay for Life last Saturday, and early totals easily exceeded $45,000. With the tally officially closing at the end of August, that figure is expected to increase.

For the ninth consecutive year, Team Oakhurst Lutheran Church, took top honors raising more than $13,000. The team, which has participated in Relay for Life since day one, was recognized for hitting the quarter-million mark in 2016.

“We start raising money in January or February,” said Team Captain Tara Ryan, a breast cancer survivor. “So many people are affected by cancer in our church, either family, friends or themselves. Every Sunday, there’s a new name to add to the list.”

A 61-year colon cancer survivor and co-captain for the team, Jean Smith, said, “When I had cancer, the only option was surgery. Later, I worked in a hospital and we sent a cancer patient to Stanford for experimental treatment with mustard gas ... he didn’t survive. So a lot of progress has been made in treatments because of events like this.”

Dental hygienist Mara Morrow, with the EV Free Church team, focused on oral cancer.

“The morbidity rate for oral cancer is high,” Morrow, who works with Dr. Bob Brosi, said. “Dental exams save lives. Every time I clean a patient’s teeth, I check for cancer.”

Wearing a button that read “The problem could be right under your nose,” Morrow pointed to the statistic that one person in the U.S. will die every hour of every day from oral cancer.

Hero of Hope speaker Kori Tincup told the crowd gathered for opening ceremonies about her long journey, beginning in 2002 with breast cancer. Over the years, she has been diagnosed with ovary and kidney cancer, and in 2014, she was told the original cancer had returned to her right hip bone.

“I will be on oral chemo for the rest of my life,” Tincup said. “I’ve walked through all this with my family by my side, supporting and taking care of me. And then there’s my Relay for Life family. They’re awesome, encouraging ... thank you all for coming out and standing in this fight for all survivors.”

The energy and fundraising efforts were high, despite a year of transitions and a smaller number of teams.

“The staff at Oak Creek Intermediate could not have been more helpful and gracious in welcoming our relay to their campus,” Maddox explained. “There may have been changes, but the main reason we were there, to honor cancer survivors and those who have lost their lives to cancer, is always the same. That’s why we relay.”

Thyroid cancer survivor and event chair Teri Martinez added, “With every step taken and every dollar raised here today, we moved closer to finding a cure. Many thanks to all who were involved. We will be working really hard to make it even better next year.”

The 5,200 Relays for Life across the country raise a combined total of about $400 million each year. The American Cancer Society uses this money for programs and groundbreaking research.

According to Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, also a cancer survivor, the EMC Relay for Life hit the $1 million mark during its ninth year.

“I didn’t wake up dead today, so it’s a great day,” Wheeler said. “Look at all the purple shirts out there, all these survivors ... it’s a great day for us all.”

Just as in previous years, Raley’s provided fruits, energy bars and water for the event.

Anyone with ideas for next year’s event can contact Teri Martinez at

Donations can be made at