Cancer survivors reflect on journey, Relay for Life

Survivors Mary Ellen Tohidi and Jim Baals reflect on their journey with cancer, and the importance of the Relay for Life.

As hundreds of students, volunteers and participants flooded Clearview Regional’s Riordan Field in Mullica Hill for the recent Relay for Life, many listened to the various journeys cancer survivors had.

I was 37 years old and I found out on my birthday I had stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” said Buena resident Jim Baals, who was this year’s keynote speaker. 

“I thought had pneumonia,” said Mary Ellen Tohidi of Washington Township. “I went [to Inspira Hospital, formerly Underwood] and they took an x-ray of my chest and they couldn’t find my heart.

Tohidi was told by a doctor she also had stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In New Jersey, the American Cancer Society said approximately 53,400 people were diagnosed with cancer so far this year, which is a fraction of the 1.76 million cases the society estimates.

Baals said with his prognosis, doctors told him he had a zero percent chance to live without treatment, and with treatment he could only live another year.

I received my 102nd chemo treatment, and in addition to that I had 37 radiation treatments, and it’s been a long, tough ride,” Baals said.

In the event, caregivers were asked to join survivors on the track to signify that it “takes a village to beat cancer.” Both Tohidi and Baals remarked how much their immediate and extended families went above and beyond to care for them whether it was medically, financially or emotionally.

“My parents, Rosemary and Frank, they assisted with a down payment for a house, my sister, Donna, paid my car off, my sister, Chris took care of my kids, and [my nephew David’s] mother Patty took care of my kids,” Tohidi said. 

“I think the family members are affected the most at home because they are the ones who keep that patient going and their reasons for living,” Baals added.

The two agreed that having Clearview students take control of the event by organizing everything and running some portions, including the coordinator, Dawson Nailor, who beat acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was wonderful and “says a lot about their parents and that they’re raising some terrific kids.” To date, the event has raised $24,646.24.

It’s not just a social event, it’s a way of life for those people,” Baals said. “Again, you have to have gratitude for what all of these people are going through and what they’re doing for us. They don’t know me, and yet I’m becoming the fruit of the tree they’re planting.”

Tohidi added she’s been going to the Relays for Life for several years, one year where she was a survivor speaker. Baals said, for him and many other survivors, the relays are a way for the ACS to raise money for research, treatments and to find an evidential cure for cancer.

Besides that, he added the event provides inspiration for those who were recently diagnosed with cancer or who have a loved one with cancer to know that a prognosis isn’t always definite.

When they hear of my story and others, they have a story and they’re all stories of hope,” he said. “It’s a very uplifting event that more people should try and come out to.”

“I want people to know that no matter what cancer they have, don’t give up hope,” Tohidi said. “Never give up hope.”