Woog’s World: Relay for Life veteran’s personal cancer obstacle course
On Saturday, Westport’s Relay for Life takes over the Staples High School football field. From 2 to 8 p.m., members of self-organized teams take turns walking the track. Food, games and activities — like the "survivors’ lap" that kick off the event, and a luminaria ceremony after dark — help build camaraderie. It’s fun, family-friendly — and a wonderful way to honor people with cancer and caregivers, as well as friends, neighbors and co-workers battling the disease together.
It’s also a tremendous fundraiser.
Paul Fletcher is intimately familiar with the Relay for Life. He spent the first 16 years of his teaching career in Bridgeport. When his daughter was born, he came to Westport. For the last 13 years, he’s been a highly regarded seventh-grade Bedford Middle School math teacher.
In the summer of 1991 he volunteered at Camp Rising Sun, an American Cancer Society program for children with the disease, and survivors. Fletcher was hooked. Over the next decade, he rose to co-director.
At the same time, he joined a team of nurses at the Relay for Life. It was so rewarding, the next year he formed his own team at his Bridgeport school. Every year since, those adults participated in the Fairfield Relay for Life.
When Fletcher came to Westport, he joined an already-existing Bedford team. Soon, he became captain. The group has grown. Every year, new staff members join.
In September 2010, Fletcher’s connection with the Relay for Life suddenly grew more personal: He was diagnosed with cancer.
An operation did not remove the entire tumor. In November, he began chemotherapy in Milford — not New York — so he could continue teaching.
Bedford’s staff and administration were "awesome," Fletcher recalled. Teachers delivered meals, and cleaned his house. Neighbors shoveled his driveway.
But in January, he learned the cancer was back — and had metastasized to his lungs. He needed high-dose chemo, with stem cell replacement.
In February, he had lung surgery. The next month he headed to New York, while doctors tried to harvest his stem cells. It proved difficult.
On Mother’s Day 2011, Fletcher’s wife and two children helped him move into Hope Lodge. The ACS building provides free housing for people undergoing treatment, and a caregiver. That week, doctors collected the last of eight million stem cells. Treatment continued through the end of July.
That very difficult time was made bearable by phone calls and visits from family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.
But in August, Fletcher learned his cancer was back again. More lung surgery followed — unsuccessfully. Drugs helped his body produce platelets, and another operation took place in September. Once again, he learned his cancer returned.
The last lung surgery — in November — finally worked. This coming November, Fletcher will go for his five-year checkup. "It’s a big deal!" he said emotionally, recounting his long fight.
Fletcher has been back teaching at Bedford for nearly five years. His co-workers have been "amazing." They check on him often — and continue to support the Relay for Life.
When he was sick, students joined staff. There were shaved heads, pies thrown in faces and much more. That year, the school raised $18,000. Fletcher left Hope Lodge for four hours, to attend in person. He proudly walked the survivors’ lap.
"I won’t even try to convey what that did for my spirit," Fletcher said.
When he returned to work at Bedford, one of his students was also battling cancer. They encouraged each other. When she had a setback, the school once again responded with energy and compassion. The school’s relay team was named in her honor. Again, they raised $18,000 for the American Cancer Society.
Fletcher learned a lot during his illness. He listened to his body, and did what was right for himself. "Living in the moment gave me a peace I am striving to get back, now that my life is big again," he said.
He found joy every day. He remained positive, and looked for the blessings in his situation.
He asked for help when he needed it, and realized that accepting help did not come with obligations. He saw the amazing difference that a phone call, text or visit made, and reached out to others more.
He is grateful he can now teach his daughter to drive, and talk to his son about life (and girls). He believes he is blessed. "I don’t know why I survived and so many others better than I did not," he said. "I try not to take it for granted."
Tomorrow, Fletcher will be at Stop & Shop from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to raise awareness for Relay for Life. Then he’ll head to Staples, participating with joy.
Just as he did for years, long before his own diagnosis.