COHASSET — On June 22, Tricia Cifrino’s two young children will light a candle for her at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life of Cohasset, Hingham, Hull, and Scituate. They will join her — a cancer survivor — in a circle of hundreds, all cradling hand-decorated bags with candles inside, each flame honoring a life touched by cancer, each with a story.
Another luminaria ceremony will take place at overnight relays in six other communities south of Boston this month. Families and friends, young and old, will come together on fields lit up by colorful tents, music, food, and games in Mansfield, Norwood, and Weymouth on Friday; in Cohasset, Marshfield, and Plymouth on June 22, and on June 29 in Quincy.
All will take part in a series of rituals — including an opening ceremony, a lap to honor survivors, another for caregivers, and a closing pledge — that define the Relay for Life, an annual fund-raiser adopted by 5,000 US communities that has pulled in $4.25 billion for cancer research, detection, and prevention, and patient support programs since 1985, according to the American Cancer Society.
For the Cifrino family in Cohasset, as for countless among the 3.5 million participants in the fund-raisers nationwide, the local relay is also a source of solace. For Tricia Cifrino, it acquired personal significance on May 19, 2008 — the day everything changed for her and her family.
‘Our kids are getting the message that people have cancer and don’t die.’
At 43, Cifrino was an energetic mother of two, her mind on family, church, girlfriends, shopping, manicures, and, on that spring day, she was throwing a dinner and silent auction fund-raiser at the Cohasset Golf Club.
When her doctor called with biopsy results of a small black mole removed from her leg a week earlier — a mole that never hurt, never alarmed her — she recalls saying: “Can it wait just one more day?” No, she was told, it couldn’t wait.
By noon she was at the doctor’s office with the diagnosis: advanced melanoma, stage three. At first, she recalls thinking: “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Her son, Jack, was 6; her daughter, Emma, 4. It was her seventh wedding anniversary, and she was calling her husband, Steven Cifrino, in business development at food service distributor Sysco, in tears.
Over the next year, she underwent multiple tests, surgeries, treatments, and, since the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, alpha-interferon injections, a lauded therapy for melanoma patients with often trying side effects that include physical malaise and depression.
Tricia moved to a downstairs bedroom, Steven took five months off from work, friends dropped by with suppers, often leaving enough food for 40. Jack and Emma visited with their mother for 20 minutes in the evening, playing toss or badminton from the end of the bed, or just talking.
“Are you going to die?” the children sometimes asked.
“She’s not allowed to,” their father said.
“We’re not done here yet. I’m going to watch you grow up,” Tricia said.
The children grew close. At school recess — Jack in kindergarten, Emma in nursery school — the siblings made a habit of leaving the classroom line-up to hug each other. Steven knew about this because he was now the parent meeting with teachers, reading to his children, and playing a more intimate role in their lives.
For Tricia, the cancer meant a daily fight for survival. There were terrible times when she nearly lost sight of her familiar self, ground down as she was by treatment side effects. Gradually, she regained her energy, became more religious, and felt renewed by the strength of her family, friends, and her own fierce determination, a mother’s will, to keep her family whole.
Today she is done with treatment. She looks healthy and active, although she must always maintain a vigilant watch for a recurrence of cancer.
On June 22, a little more than four years after she was diagnosed, Tricia will step onto the track for the survivors’ lap. Back then, she recalls thinking: “Now everyone knows.” And then, “I’m not worthy of being a survivor. Last month, I was thinking about manicures, and now I’m thinking about losing my hair.”
She was so new to cancer.
Harry St. Onge, a three-time cancer survivor, started the local relay 17 years ago because, he said, he believes every participant makes a difference, every story counts. “Come out and join us. This is a celebration of life,” he said in a recent interview.
“We’ve all been touched by cancer in some way or will be in the future,” said Courtney Finn, a Cohasset mother who, with cochairwoman Jennifer Lord, organizes the relay that has attracted 200 to 500 people each year and raised $1.5 million over the past 15 years.
Lyn Previte, who heads a relay team and is also a cancer survivor, said she looks out for new people during the survivors’ lap and, if they appear hesitant, offers her hand and walks beside them.
“Our kids are getting the message that people have cancer and don’t die,” said Michele Allen, a mother on a relay team with Finn and Tricia.
“We are teaching them cancer is something to fight. Yes, Mrs. Cifrino has cancer, and we can do something about it,” she said.
The Cifrino family looks forward to the relay as well.
“The relay is like the beautiful side of cancer — the people coming together, the awareness, the information,” said Tricia in her home, her husband seated close beside her on a couch.
Jack, 10, now in fourth grade, was upstairs. He said his mother was sick a long time ago, when he was only 6, and he does not like to talk about it. But he smiled when asked about the Relay for Life. “We play,” he said.
Emma, 8, produced a handwritten note: “When my mom had cancer I was feeling a lot of different emotions like sad, scared, and worried,” she wrote in careful letters angled in a child’s handwriting.
She described the relay’s ceremonies, with special focus on the candles, and ended the note: “The Relay for Life is fun.”
It’s also a touchstone, her mother said.
Tricia Cifrino recalled the hope she felt in 2008 when she saw a rainbow above the track and thought: “Everything is going to be OK.”
“You see all these people walking around this field, all of them from this small little town, and you think: I’m not in it alone,” she said.