Cancer survivors’ battles tell stories of Relay goals |

Cancer survivors’ battles tell stories of Relay goals

Helen Berntson, Jim Nelson and Luther Berntson wrap up the survivors lap to open the 2014 Steamboat Springs Relay For Life Friday night. The Berntsons are multiple cancer survivors, and Nelson beat prostate cancer.
Ben Ingersoll

— Helen and Luther Berntson know all too well what cancer looks and feels like.

Cancer took both of their parents and found its way into just about every one of their siblings.

Then cancer took over in Helen and Luther — multiple diagnoses for each.

Despite separate bouts of cancer between them, the Berntsons still are walking, currently cancer-free and strong enough to take on the 2014 Relay For Life at Steamboat Springs High School’s Gardner Field.

It’s a nationwide event that Helen, 81, and Luther, 82, have been active in for the better part of the past decade, in and out of their battles with prostate, skin and breast cancer.

Before Relay For Life made its way to Routt County, the Berntsons would pack up their tent and their best pairs of walking shoes and participate in the Fort Collins relay. In those days, Helen said, their team would walk hundreds of miles between them, setting up shop with a tent and sleeping bags, going the overnight distance.

“Oh, my gosh. It’s great,” Helen said about what the Relay For Life has meant to her family. “We’ve been very involved with the relay since it started. Luther and another guy were even co-chairmen for some of Steamboat’s first ones.”

And for those early Steamboat relays when Luther served as a chairman, more than 700 people would pace the track overnight, raising more than $150,000 one year, the highest per-capita in the United States.

This year, dozens of survivors and supporters paced the high school’s track, passing by hundreds of glow-stick-lit bags dedicated to those who didn’t win the battle against cancer, like Helen and Luther so fortunately did. Each bag also represents a $10 donation toward the fight against cancer.

The Relay For Life represents “a night to fight against cancer,” Lynn Simmons said, noting what so often is said about the disease — survivor or not, it has touched the lives of everyone in one way or another. Simmons delivered a powerful opening ceremony poem, followed by the raising of the American flag and the survivor walk.

The relay is held in more than 5,200 communities now, spanning more than 20 countries with hundreds of thousands of participants.

Many stride with relative ease, and some — the children especially — don’t mind an occasional sprint.

The survivors prefer to take their time. Some do so because they have to, and some take in the moment of their solitary lap together to open the 2014 relay, sporting purple and white shirts that proudly display “SURVIVOR” across the back shoulders.

As for the Berntsons and their relay partner, Jim Nelson, they are of the slow-strolling variety. Luther’s recent open-heart surgery slows him down a bit, but doesn’t stop him. Both returned after the sun set to particpate in the luminaria ceremony. Helen even squeezed in a few extra laps, going beyond her one-lap commitment.

“They are inspirations to everyone in this town,” Nelson said about the Berntsons, who have lived in Steamboat since 1996. “They really are.”

More than 100 relayers registered this year and early totals eclipsed $30,000.

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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