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Search for cure is personal

Marisa Iati | Friday, April 27, 2012

For Dave Prentkowski, director of Notre Dame Food Services, encouraging members of the Notre Dame community to participate in Relay for Life is about more than just supporting a good cause. It’s personal.

Prentkowski is the honorary chair of this year’s American Cancer Society fundraiser, which will take place Friday evening through Saturday morning at Notre Dame Stadium.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the fall, Prentkowski is promoting participation in Relay. He said he spoke to team leaders at a meeting in March to show his support and will be involved in various ceremonies at the event.

Prentkowski said he wanted to raise awareness on the fundraising effort, even though the money donated to cancer research might not personally affect him.

“It certainly will affect others down the road and I think that’s important,” he said. “It could be family members or people you know or people that you don’t know.”

Cancer can touch anybody and affects each person differently, Prentkowski said.

“It’s not discriminatory,” he said. “That’s for sure. It doesn’t really care who you are or anything like that.”

Still, there has been progress in treating certain types of cancer, Prentkowski said.

“You see a lot more people that now say that they’re cancer-free,” he said. “Now, a lot more people are being able to recover from it.”

Prentkowski said he receives a great deal of support from his wife, who has been an oncology nurse for 20 years.

“Having her with all that expertise has been helpful for me because she’s more capable of talking to the doctors and the language they talk than I am,” Prentkowski said. “Also, she’s certified to do [medical] things, so I avoid having to go back to the clinic … It’s nice to have that kind of support.”

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Junior Courtney Reinkemeyer said she began participating in Relay for Life in high school because many of her classmates were involved. Once she came to Notre Dame that changed, she said.

“I kind of experienced firsthand the effects of cancer, so that just made it a lot more important to me to participate in it,” she said.

Reinkemeyer said she was diagnosed with breast cancer during fall break of her freshman year. After several surgeries, she said she is now cancer-free.

“Back home, my best friend’s mom was diagnosed with cancer probably a year after I had been, she said. “My mom and her friends were in a book club, and they started a [Relay for Life] team. It was kind of a combined effort for her as well as me.”

Reinkemeyer said she helped promote the team and participated in the Relay event last summer in her hometown, Jefferson City, Mo.

“I think [my experience with cancer has] definitely put a lot more passion into going and just trying to raise awareness about it,” she said.

At Notre Dame, Reinkemeyer conducts cancer research with Steven Buechler, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Department of Mathematics. She said they study the levels of gene expression in breast cancer patients to determine what treatments they need.

“Low expression in some of the genes actually shows that [some] patients don’t need chemotherapy, or without chemotherapy, their cancer shouldn’t come back,” Reinkemeyer said. “It’s just trying to find the subset of women that don’t need to find extra treatment.”

Reinkemeyer said Relay for Life is an opportunity to raise money for cancer research and help develop treatment options.

“I think the most important part is that it just brings hope to so many people, and that’s one of the main reasons that I keep going back,” she said.

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This year, sophomore Laurel Komos said she is participating in honor of her friend from high school who is battling osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor.

“She has pretty much the brightest personality ever and is a pretty big inspiration,” Komos said. “Just following her story made me really want to do it. I’m for ‘#TeamEvans’ … That’s her unofficial Relay team name.”

Komos, who is on Pasquerilla West’s team, said her friend keeps a blog about her experience battling cancer.

“She just says that every day is a gift, and her whole thing is based on an Andy Grammer song, ‘Keep Your Head Up,'” Komos said. “I hope that people kind of get a little bit of that mentality out of it, a better appreciation for our health.”

Komos said she hopes Relay participants are inspired by the stories of survivors and people currently battling cancer.

“I never really realized how much cancer changes your life, and I’ve never really been affected by it until this … situation,” she said. “Watching her optimism and the way she fights through it is really shocking, and it makes you appreciate the things in your life more.”

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For many years, sophomore Alison Quinn did not know anyone who had cancer. But when she was 16, her close friend was diagnosed with pineoblastoma, a brain tumor.

“That’s kind of where my involvement with the American Cancer Society and Relay for Life started,” Quinn said. “When she had cancer, we would always do stuff like raise money for her family.”

Quinn said participating in Relay for Life at Notre Dame last year was a way for her to honor her friend and give back to her friend’s family. After her friend passed away last spring, Quinn said Relay took on additional meaning.

“That’s why this year means so much more to me,” she said, “because not only do I now know more people who have cancer just through getting older and knowing people, but also I know someone whose story, a big part of it was cancer. By knowing her, it made me that much more involved and makes me want to honor her life and keep fighting for everyone else who is fighting.”

Quinn, who is a member of the Ryan team, said Relay is a way for people to visualize how many people cancer affects.

“For some people, cancer is just a concept, it’s just a disease, it’s just something that’s there and that we know happens, but when it gets personal is when it really hits you,” she said. “You’re connected through cancer. It’s kind of like that six degrees of separation type thing.”

Honoring specific people who have been affected by cancer is a way to bring the concept of fighting the disease to life, Quinn said.

“There’s so much we can do, even if we’re not directly involved in a situation where someone has cancer,” Quinn said. “We all can be involved, and we can all step up and be a part of something really powerful. And hopefully in the future … we might find a way to make it better.”