Student’s story comes full circle at Relay for Life

In the ninth year the University of Minnesota has hosted the fundraiser, groups raised more than $155,000.

by Claire Bramel

Erin Tlachac always identified herself with her curly brown hair.

“That’s how people in Admissions Ambassadors knew her — Erin with the pretty long hair,” said her friend Zach Morris.

But Tlachac, a junior studying child psychology, was without her long hair when she gave the opening speech at Relay for Life on Friday at Bierman Field.

Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last May, Tlachac recounted her battle with cancer.

“I kind of joke about it now and say I had a summer cancer,” she said.

Though she lost her hair and the relaxation that comes with a summer vacation, one thing Tlachac didn’t lose was her positivity.

“Cancer is not traditionally thought of as ‘positive,’ but Erin spoke with such a passion for life that anyone who was listening was transported from a story of sadness to a story of survival,” Quintin Walker, Tlachac’s best friend and fellow Admissions Ambassador co-chair, said of her speech.

Last year, Tlachac was a part of the Admission Ambassador’s philanthropy committee and helped organize efforts for Relay for Life. At that point, she did not personally know anyone with cancer.

She first discovered two lumps on her neck shortly after the relay concluded but brushed them off as enlarged lymph nodes due to stress from finals.

A few weeks later, Tlachac was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It was so random because no one in my family has ever had cancer,” she said. “I’ve always been so healthy — I’ve never been really sick; I’ve always been really active.”

Tlachac spent the entire summer going to Rochester, Minn., to visit Mayo Clinic for treatments. Her father, Randall Tlachac is a microbiologist who has spent the past six years working with a prominent Mayo oncologist who played a vital role in Erin Tlachac’s recovery. Just two hours after learning about her diagnosis, the oncologist cleared his schedule.

“The care, empathy and personal attention was truly a blessing for us,” Randall Tlachac said.

He said he was impressed and proud of her attitude throughout the summer.

“She was truly a model for anyone going through cancer. Her sense of humor was uplifting,” he said.

Erin Tlachac said she worked hard trying to stay optimistic, and the hardest part was losing her hair. Looking back, she said the journey has caused her to look at life from a different perspective.

“The whole experience was a huge reality check for me. When your life is stripped down to staying alive, you really realize what the important things are,” she said.

When she finished her treatments last August, Tlachac said she was excited when Morris, who is the director of survival engagement for Colleges Against Cancer, asked her to speak at Relay for Life this year.

Walker, a sophomore studying communications, said she did not disappoint.

“She refused to share her speech with me until I heard it at Relay,” he said. “I couldn’t help but cry at the positivity she displayed.”

Tlachac said the entire night was surreal. Wearing her purple shirt with “SURVIVOR” across the front, she said the best feeling was walking a lap with fellow cancer survivors.

“It was the culmination of everything I had been through,” she said. “My closest friends, my fellow admissions ambassadors were all waiting for me at the end, cheering me on, and when they hugged me, I thought, ‘This is the kind of love that got me through cancer.’”

More than 1,700 participants attended the ninth annual Relay For Life on Friday, down from last year’s 2,400.

Colleges Against Cancer put on the fundraiser, which raised more than $155,000, roughly $60,000 less than 2011’s Relay For Life. From 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., 140 teams walked to raise awareness and money for the American Cancer Society.

The Colleges Against Cancer committee was the leading donation team with $10,460 contributed in its name. Let’s Bout’ Cancer! and Admissions Ambassadors raised close totals, coming in second and third, respectively.

Despite rainy conditions, participants set up campsites and listened to survivors’ stories and engaged in the luminaria celebration — a candlelight vigil — to honor victims taken by cancer.

“It’s important that we fundraise this much money,” Morris said. “[Cancer] can happen to anyone.”