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Relay for Life hits 10 years ; Leukemia survivor to lead opening lap

When eastern Niagara County's 10th annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life begins Saturday evening, Chet Secrist will lead the ceremonial opening lap.

Secrist, 45, owns Chet's Dog House, a popular West Main Street breakfast and lunch haunt he had to close last year when he was diagnosed with leukemia.

The disease has been in remission since July, and Secrist said he's exercising and raring to go for his walk around the track at Emmet Belknap Middle School.

"I should be able to go quite a distance. I've been riding a stationary bike and walking when I can," he said.

Secrist said he's been riding the bike for about four months and "going hard" 20 minutes a day for about three weeks.

Darlene Lutz, a longtime organizer of the Relay for Life, said the notion of asking Secrist to lead the opening lap occurred to her last Christmas Day, as she drove past the Dog House, whose window bears a sign that says, "Temporarily Closed."

Every year's opening lap leader is a cancer survivor, Lutz said, but the types of disease are different each time.

"We've never had a cancer survivor [lead the lap] who had leukemia," Lutz said. "Last year, it was lung cancer. One year it was all children."

"It really means a lot that they chose me," Secrist said. "There are a lot of cancer people in Lockport."

Secrist said he had his last doses of chemotherapy and radiation in September, but he's still on a lot of prescriptions.

"To be cured from leukemia, they want you to be in remission for three years," he said.

For 13 years, Chet manned the grill at his restaurant for 10 hours a day, six days a week, with only one waitress to help him.

"I really miss work now," he said. But he conceded, "I know I couldn't work a 10-hour day."

He's making plans for an eventual return to the Dog House, although he said he knows he'll have to hire another cook and a second waitress to help him.

When will that happen?

"It's kind of out of my hands. It's up to the doctors at Roswell [Park Cancer Institute] to give me the green light to go back. I don't think they want me working [while] on immunosuppression medicine. I was working right behind the counter in close proximity to a lot of people, and I don't think they want me to do that," Secrist said.

Lutz said the Relay for Life, which is in its fourth year in Lockport after six years in Barker, is on track to meet or exceed this year's goal of $167,000.

As of late last week, $130,000 was in the bank in donations gathered by members of more than 65 relay teams. The rules call for at least one member of each team to be on the track at all times between 6 p.m. Saturday and 6 a.m. Sunday.

Lutz said handing in donations in advance is standard operating procedure, as the money raised is not pegged to the distance walked or run by the participants.

"Otherwise, they'd be standing in line for hours," Lutz said.

The first nine relays raised a total of $1,251,787.

Teams range from one to 15 people. Many teams are larger, but for bookkeeping purposes, any team larger than 15 is subdivided.

"You don't have to be on a team [to contribute]. Every hot dog someone purchases is $1 for the American Cancer Society," Lutz said.

Saturday's activities begin with a wiffleball tournament at 10 a.m. Live music begins at 2 p.m. and continues until 11:30, interrupted only by the opening ceremony at 6 and the luminaria ceremony, a lighting of candles in memory of cancer victims, at 10.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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