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Major Tampa relay fundraiser takes on cancer next week

Conversation with Wendy Johnson, executive director of The American Cancer Society for the greater Tampa Bay area, who promotes the fundraiser: Relay @ Home
Wendy Johnson, greater Tampa Bay area American Cancer Society senior executive director, poses outside of the Tampa Hope Lodge, Tampa, Tuesday, January 19, 2021.
Wendy Johnson, greater Tampa Bay area American Cancer Society senior executive director, poses outside of the Tampa Hope Lodge, Tampa, Tuesday, January 19, 2021. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jan. 30
Updated Jan. 30

Times Correspondent

February 4th is international World Cancer Day, dedicated to raising awareness of cancer and its prevention, detection and treatment. It also kicks off the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay for Life fund-raiser.

This year, because of the pandemic, the Relay has become a virtual event called Relay @ Home, said Wendy Johnson, the cancer society’s executive director for the greater Tampa Bay area, which covers an area from Citrus to Collier counties. Earlier this month, Johnson took part in the national Relay First Lap to promote the fund-raiser and in tribute to her cousin, Ginger Malloy.

Johnson, 58, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about Relay for Life, victories in the fight against cancer, concerns in light of the pandemic and grants being given locally by a charity arm of the Super Bowl LV Host Committee.

What is Relay for Life?

Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society’s largest community fundraising movement. Relays celebrate cancer survivors and cancer thrivers. Relay salutes and pays tribute to those affected and lost to the disease, and most of all, Relay unites communities in the fight against cancer. …

Relay for Life originated from Dr. Gordy Klatt on a high school track (in Tacoma, Wash., 1985). And at one time the Relay was held on school tracks. Today, Relay is held in your community, in your neighborhood. We are launching something called Relay @ Home, so it allows people to take a walk-in salute to a cancer story that is near and dear to them and certainly to begin their fund-raising in effort to help join the fight against cancer. …

Last year we learned so much, and this year we’re bringing best practices in to meet our volunteers and our supporters where they are. Relay @ Home allows our constituents and participants to engage in fun activities in their own backyard, in their neighborhoods, safe and successfully.

Wendy Johnson said that we all have a reason to engage in our mission of saving lives from cancer. Her cousin Ginger Malloy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer stage 4.
Wendy Johnson said that we all have a reason to engage in our mission of saving lives from cancer. Her cousin Ginger Malloy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer stage 4. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

When was Relay First Lap, and why did you dedicate yours to Ginger Malloy?

Relay First Lap took place on Jan. 9 all over the world, and so I chose to take my first lap off the track to celebrate Relay @ Home and of course in honor of my cousin and my godmother. Ginger was a mentor to me. She inspired me in many ways. Ginger was also extremely mindful to take all the right steps, including her health care choices. And yet she was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. With surgery, treatments, she lived just under a year after her diagnosis. So, unfortunately, when one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, we all have a story. We all have a reason to engage in our mission of saving lives from cancer.

Where do the funds that are raised by the American Cancer Society go?

We contribute to education, advocacy, research and free programs and services that help cancer patients throughout their cancer journey.

One of the tremendous services that we support is our (toll-free) phone number (1 (800) 227 2345). Our National Cancer Information Center, NCIC is what we call it, can be reached whether it be by phone or – new this year, with COVID – through (an online chat). (Go to cancer.org and look under Cancer Helpline in the upper left corner of the page.) ...

There are real live individuals on the other side of the phone, and we help people who are not experts in their cancer journey yet to navigate the entire cancer curricula. So, education, connecting to resources and then of course connecting them to our free programs and services as well.

The American Cancer Society recently reported that between 1991 to 2018, cancer deaths decreased substantially. What was the cause of that?

This is our 70th anniversary of reporting and publishing cancer facts and figures, which is the gold standard research that’s utilized often by researchers, by doctors. But in the latest edition, which was featured Jan. 12 (https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/acs-research.html). What the cancer facts and figures showed was that overall cancer death rates had dropped by 31 percent. So that’s an estimated 3.2 million cancer deaths that were averted during this time. And that is largely due to reduction in smoking, earlier detection, improvements in treatments.

A big concern that the pandemic has brought on is the decline in testing for cancer, you say.

We know that there are thousands of people who are walking around with undiagnosed cancer. There has been a significant delay in cancer screenings for safety reasons, of course. So because of that backlog, we know that there are cancer diagnoses that will be diagnosed perhaps later in stage.

What is the Super Bowl Host Committee doing for the cancer society in this region?

We could not be more excited for this partnership. The host committee has agreed to support the American Cancer Society with a grant through the NFL Crucial Catch program, and this will allow $120,000 dollars to support our Hope Lodge in Tampa and a $30,000 grant that will be given to the Community Health Centers of Pinellas County. This grant bolsters cancer screenings and addresses health inequities, which is a continued problem in Tampa Bay and across the nation.

What does the Hope Lodge do?

The Hope Lodge provides free lodging for cancer patients receiving treatment in Tampa Bay. We are one of 33 Hope Lodges across the country, and people travel to Tampa Bay for cancer treatment from all over the world.

You came from the retail sector, in upper management at Saks Fifth Avenue. How did that help you with your role now?

Our customers, our supporters, don’t differentiate the American Cancer Society customer-experience leaders from customer-experience leaders like Starbucks and Amazon. They expect each experience with us to be easy and positive and successful and fulfilling. That’s what creates customer loyalty and people who want to work with you. So in order to enhance our customer experience, we’ve shifted, over time, our culture. Today we place the customer at the center of every decision we make and in everything that we do. Our customer promises lead those decisions.

What do you mean by customers?

It means every individual that we engage with or engages with us.