LSA senior Brian Pienta never expected to find a fist-sized cancerous tumor in his leg when he went home for Christmas his sophomore year of college.
“Old people got cancer, as far as I was concerned,” he said.
Pienta was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare fatty tissue cancer that grows between the muscles, and underwent surgery in the summer. He was bedridden for more than a month before returning to school to balance classes and radiation therapy.
On Saturday, Pienta attended his fourth Relay for Life – his second as a survivor.
The American Cancer Society, in partnership with cities and schools, hosts about 4,800 Relay for Life events nationwide each year. The University held its 6th annual Relay for Life this weekend on Palmer Field.
More than 150 teams set up campsites Saturday morning and remained there for 24 hours relay, walking laps and hanging out with friends. The teams included student organizations, sororities, fraternities, residence halls, companies and groups of friends.
The event raised $262,000, more than any other college or university, said Richard Lam, one of the co-chairs of the event’s planning committee.
Pienta said he understands firsthand what effect the money raised at relays can have on research and cancer treatment. Until recently, Pienta’s leg might have been amputated for lack of better options.
“Without organizations like ACS, rarer types of cancer like mine wouldn’t have gotten funding for research,” he said. “Because of funding, research has been done with surgery and radiation, so I get to keep my leg.”
Pienta said he was first able to identify as a cancer survivor at last year’s Relay for Life, during the survivor’s lap around the track. While the survivors walk the track, other participants cheer and clap.
“You feel like you did something great and everyone is here for you,” Pienta said.
Ross School of Business senior Aundrea Albers, one of the three co-chairs of the relay’s planning committee, said celebrating the survivors is one of the most important aspects of the event. This year, they tried to encourage every team to bring someone who has survived or is fighting cancer.
“Being a college event, we typically have less survivors,” she said. “We wanted to make sure more were here, because they’re why we’re here.”
Since the University began sponsoring Relay for Life, its participants have raised more than $1 million to fund cancer research and cancer education and awareness programs.
Dr. Kenneth Pienta, a professor of internal medicine and urology at the University and Brian father, is one of the cancer researchers funded by the ACS. His research focuses on the origins and spread of cancer, so scientists can develop treatments to stop it.
Dr. Pienta said he has spoken at more relays than he can count, starting before his son was diagnosed. He called his son’s diagnosis and its effect on their family “another reason to hate the disease.”
“I get up everyday trying to cure it,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to deal with it at home.”
Last week, Brian had his year-and-a-half checkup, which turned out to be clean.
He said he’s almost in the clear, because 90 percent of recurrences happen within the first two years. He’s only six months away from that point.