Two organizers of MIT’s Relay for Life prepare to pass the torch

One thousand students and community members raise more than $85,000 for cancer research at all-night event

By the time she arrived at MIT in 2010, Ally Hawkins ’14 had already walked a difficult path. As a child she was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare and fast-growing type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Even though I had done a lot of work raising awareness of cancer when I was going through treatment in high school, I didn’t want cancer to define me at MIT,” Ally said.

But a fellow student shared Hawkins’ story with the MIT chapter of Colleges Against Cancer (CAC), which sponsored the first Relay For Life on campus that year. “They asked me to speak at a ceremony honoring family and friends who battled cancer,” she said, “and I had such a good experience that I decided to get involved with planning the next event.”

Four years later, Hawkins and Christina Lalani ‘14 were co-directors of the 2014 Relay For Life at MIT, which raised more than $85,000 for cancer research on behalf of the American Cancer Society. And their friend Fangdi Sun ’14 is president of CAC, which sponsored the event on March 8-9.

“I got involved when one of my best friends lost a parent to cancer,” Sun said of her route to MIT’s Relay. “I felt it really made a difference in our community and for my friend, so I wanted to get involved as soon as I heard about it.” The Relay has grown in four years from a few hundred participants in 2010 to more than 1,000 this year, and Sun helped plan all four.

MIT’s 2014 Relay was an all-night affair, filled with music, fundraising activities, and reflections on how cancer affected the lives of survivors and those who lost loved ones. The Johnson Athletics Center indoor track was decorated like a huge Monopoly board — “It’s the first time we’ve had a theme for Relay,” Hawkins said — as Dennis Kim, an associate professor of biology, spoke during the opening ceremony about young people close to him who dealt with cancer.

The ceremony was followed by a lap of the track by cancer survivors, who were joined by anyone who had cared for someone with cancer. Lap by lap, committee members and others touched by the disease joined in until everyone there was walking together. “It’s a powerful reminder of how many people are affected by cancer, directly or indirectly,” Hawkins said.

The evening was then given over to fun and fundraising: a cappella and dance group performances, an ice cream eating contest, Zumba fitness dancing lessons, and plenty of other activities kept participants awake and engaged throughout the night.

The event was punctuated by three additional ceremonies. One of which, the Luminaria Ceremony, featured glowing paper lanterns commemorating the lives of family and friends affected by cancer. “Ally spoke at this ceremony as a freshman,” Sun said, “and it was very powerful to hear from someone our own age who already fought cancer.” At the Fight Back ceremony, Wellesley College student Cat Anderson spoke about her own battle with cancer, and encouraged participants to dedicate themselves to fighting the disease for the community, their loved ones, and themselves. The closing ceremony was a final remembrance of those who lost their lives to cancer, and an opportunity for participants to commit to supporting the Relay’s goals throughout the year.

“It’s also a great way to honor the committee members and volunteers,” Hawkins said. “They’re the ones who make it all the way through the night.”

As Hawkins and Sun’s MIT careers draw to a close, their personal commitments to fighting cancer continue. Sun will enter Harvard Medical School in the fall, and Hawkins will start a cancer research PhD program at the University of Michigan. But looking back on their years of organizing MIT’s Relay For Life had them thinking about the future.

“We do a lot of great things as MIT students, but this is one that I feel most proud of,” Sun said. “Even though Ally and I are leaving campus, we’re looking forward to seeing it continue to grow.”

Topics: Special events and guest speakers, Students, Student life, Cancer, Volunteering, outreach, public service

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