Haley Charbonneau doesn’t like to plan too many days in advance. A four-year battle against a rare form of bone cancer taught the Saginaw Valley State University senior that each day is best lived one at a time.
Still, the Bay City woman a few weeks ago was quick to accept an invitation to speak to the cancer survivors, caretakers and supporters that will gather at SVSU’s annual Relay For Life event Friday, Feb. 8.
“I couldn’t miss it,” Charbonneau said of the fundraiser that supports cancer research via the American Cancer Society. “There’s a real sense of community and support that happens at Relay For Life, and I want to be there for that.”
SVSU’s Relay For Life is scheduled from 2 p.m. to midnight Friday in SVSU’s Ryder Center, where teams of students will gather to raise money. The public is invited to attend the event, which will honor cancer survivors while also featuring entertainment and raffle giveaways. Supporters also can contribute to the fundraiser online at SVSU’s Relay For Life webpage.
Last year, the SVSU event raised $25,750. This year, student organizers hope to raise as much as $30,000.
Sabrina Bellante, the lead student coordinator this year and last, said her motivation for supporting Relay For Life became especially personal after her uncle, Edward “Bob” Pressel, died of brain cancer in October 2018.
“Brain cancer is such a tough cancer to come back from,” she said. “For me, I want to raise money to find some kind of research to help people diagnosed with brain cancer.”
The exercise science major from Clinton Township said her uncle’s fight to stay alive continues to motivate her to help others suffering from cancer. He survived more than a year beyond an initial six- to eight-month life expectancy diagnosis from doctors.
“He made a huge impact on my life,” said Bellante, president of the SVSU chapter of Colleges Against Cancer that organizes SVSU's Relay For Life event.
Bellante said she also is inspired by cancer survivors such as Charbonneau, who will serve as the “survivor speaker” at this year's fundraiser.
Charbonneau said she plans to tell Friday's attendees how, two days after her 18th birthday in 2012, doctors discovered a tumor growing on her left tibia. A later diagnosis revealed it was caused by a rare form of bone cancer known as adamantinoma, which makes up less than 1 percent of all bone cancer diagnoses.
“My doctor had only seen one other case of it in her 25 years of practice,” Charbonneau said. “Chemo and radiation don’t work on it.”
Doctors performed six surgeries on Charbonneau from 2012-16, until eventually her entire left tibia was replaced with cadaver bones reinforced by metal plates and rods.
Her long fight against cancer began shortly after she first arrived at SVSU as a communication major. There were times when she could not walk without the aid of wheelchairs, canes or walking boots, yet she remained enrolled at the university in pursuit of her education. Now she is on course to walk alongside fellow graduating classmates during SVSU's commencement ceremonies in December 2019.
“Cancer took away a lot of my independence when it first happened,” she said. “I had friends who were enjoying a carefree first year of college while I was loading up the car to travel to Royal Oak for medical appointments. Fortunately, I had a great support system of friends and family who helped me along the way.”
This year represents her third since doctors last detected any trace of the cancer.
“I continue to be thankful just to be here,” she said. “That’s what I want to say on Friday: There was a point in time when I wasn’t sure if I would have another day. You never know how short life is, so I now appreciate every day that I’m given.”