Finding the courage to continue the fight

POULSBO — Nine years ago, Paul and Rhoda Layman lost their son, Zac, 15, to cancer. After the devastating blow from a disease that still has yet to be cured, the Laymans realized they had a decision to make.

“You have two choices when your child dies,” Rhoda Layman said. “You can fold up or do something that’s positive.”

They chose the latter.

For 11 years now, the Laymans — who moved to Kingston in 1998 — have participated in the Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society’s largest fund-raiser. The annual event helps raise financial support and awareness to find a cure for a disease that claims the lives of more than 500,000 Americans each year. For 24 hours beginning at 6 p.m. July 16, North Kitsap’s Relay event will take to the track and field of North Kitsap High School, walking, running and camping at the site to raise money for cancer research.

But the Laymans’ passion for the cause doesn’t end at the Relay. Paul and Rhoda’s other son, Ben, has even made a career out of finding a cure for the disease that took his brother’s life, working for the American Cancer Society in Seattle and helping to promote Relays around western Washington.

“My ultimate goal is to be put out of a job,” Ben Layman said, noting that his position would become obsolete once a cure was found.

Though his brother Zac had never met anyone from North Kitsap, his family’s passion for the cause has ensured that many in the area will always remember him.

“Nobody out here knows (Zac Layman),” Ben Layman said, “Yet, they’ve donated thousands of dollars in his name.”

Last year’s event# goal was $80,000, with the Relay teams going beyond that number by about $5,000. This year, they’ve upped the ante to a $100,000 goal.

Setting their sights that high was not unreasonable, due to this year’s turnout, said NK Relay for Life chairwoman Jo Ann Williams. In 2003, 22 team were involved; this year there are approximately 40.

The amount of energy that goes into a relay event makes it special, Williams said.

“It’s the enthusiasm, the passion for it,” Williams commented. “You can come out here at 1 a.m. and there’s lots of stuff going on, all the kids are still playing football, everyone’s still walking the track.”

Williams, who joined the Relay for Life cause in 1999, also has a special purpose in being a part of the Relay. She lost her aunt, Shirley Clement, to cancer.

“My aunt was my best friend,” Williams commented. “She is the main reason I do this. It helps the grieving to do things that help.”

Humble beginnings

In May 1985, Tacoma doctor and resident Gordy Klatt decided use a local track to start a 24-hour walk- and run-a-thon to raise money for cancer research. Klatt went 83 miles and raised $27,000 in support of the American Cancer Society. The very next year, 220 supporters on 19 teams joined Klatt during the 24-hour event and a tradition had begun. Relay For Life now involves more than 4,200 communities, according to the American Cancer Society Web site.

Through the success of the event, Ben Layman said that the American Cancer Society has funded 26 Nobel Prize winners, all in search for a cure.

Striding forward

In 1993, Zac Layman was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After two years of battling the disease, he died during a bone-marrow operation.

But before the cancer had taken his life, Zac Layman had already become involved in the Relay for Life cause. He encouraged others to do so as well.

“(Zac) wanted us to get involved in the fight against cancer,” Ben Layman said. “We’ve been involved in Relay ever since. And events like this keep the passion for my brother alive.”

Though a cure still eludes physicians, treatments created out of new research have helped fight back against the disease, prolonging lives and sometimes pushing the cancer into remission entirely, Rhoda Layman said.

“There are people living now who would’ve died 15 years ago,” she commented. “The strides they’ve made (in research) are incredible.”

The Relay’s fund-raising efforts help research for every type of cancer. Given the prolific nature of the disease — it’s the second leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease — everyone should have an interest in defeating cancer, Rhoda Layman said.

“It’s a whole family affair and it’s about every type of cancer,” she said. “Because it can strike anyone, anywhere.”

This will be the Layman family’s sixth Relay in North Kitsap. And though the tragedy that befell them nine years ago still brings tears to their eyes, they continue to walk and continue to do what they can to support research. They refused to quit the Relays after their son’s death.

“You can either give up — or do something positive,” Rhoda Layman reiterated.

And the Laymans chose to fight.

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