A longtime Relay For Life participant had her life turned upside down when she was diagnosed with colon cancer, just four months after her aunt passed away from endometrial cancer.
But thanks to her doctors, a good sense of humor and support from family and friends, Sandy Long is gearing up to take part in this weekend’s Relay For Life of Blair as the survivor ambassador.
The local Relay will be held from 11 a.m. Friday, June 10, to 11 a.m. Saturday, June 11, at Mansion Park.
Sandy, 52, said her more than 20 years of volunteering with Relay For Life took on a whole new meaning when she received her own cancer diagnosis in June 2019.
“It came as a shock especially with her being as young as she is and my sister just passing from cancer,” Tish Long said of her daughter’s diagnosis.
After surgery to remove the cancer, Sandy said she wasn’t allowed to lift anything or bend over and had to sleep sitting up.
From the time Sandy was diagnosed until she was cancer free was “a whirlwind” 30 days, Tish said.
Then, in 2021, a second diagnosis came: thyroid cancer.
This time, fighting the cancer was more challenging because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and limited staffing, Sandy said.
For that, Sandy received radiation iodine treatment, which left her in isolation for four to five days, she said.
“I think that was one of the worst things out of the thyroid cancer,” Sandy said. “The amount of radiation they give you; it comes out of you.”
Two weeks before the treatment, though, Sandy had to go on a no-salt diet, which her companion of over 20 years, MJ, took part in as moral support. The diet mostly consisted of vegetables and plain chicken — no butter, no dressing, no oil, Sandy said.
“After the radiation iodine, they wait for so many weeks and then they do a body scan to see where it gathered because it will glow fluorescent green,” she said. The green showed up in her throat, she said.
During surgery to remove the cancer, doctors moved her vocal cords to get to the thyroid. As a result, her vocal cords spasm and it sometimes makes her lose her voice.
Because of the iodine treatment, there are certain foods she can no longer stomach either, she said, such as fast food chicken, which always smells raw.
Throughout treatment, Tish said her daughter kept a good sense of humor, telling people she was going into surgery for “a boob job and a tummy tuck.”
“Everyone she dealt with, I think they saw a positive attitude from her,” Tish said. “After the first one, she thought ‘I beat this once, I can do it again.’”
Although now in remission, Sandy will continue seeing her doctor in the Hillman Cancer Center every six months for the rest of her life.
“If it depends on my life to go to the doctors every three to six months, I am perfectly fine with that,” Sandy said. “It is taking care of myself. I’m very fortunate that my cancers were very treatable.”
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for her aunt, whose cancer was too far advanced to be treated.
“She put herself on hospice and then we had a celebration of life party for her,” Sandy said. “We invited all the family, friends and had a great time. She got to talk to everybody. On her cake, she put, ‘Love one another.’”
Having been involved with Relay For Life since its inception in Blair County 28 years ago, Sandy participated for other people.
Even though her first year as a survivor was during the pandemic and Relay was canceled, she didn’t stop, Tish said.
“She did her own (Relay) and she bought balloons and she walked around Mansion Park as a survivor,” Tish said.
“I’m used to relaying for everybody and putting my efforts into everybody else,” Sandy said. “Then it dawned on me, ‘Oh my God, I’m relaying for myself.’”
An Altoona native, Sandy graduated from Altoona Area High School in 1987 before going to work at a nursing home that had a Relay For Life team. It was there that she was introduced to the event.
“I went my first year and stayed all night with the team,” Sandy said. “I was just so impressed and I just wanted to be on the committee with them to make a difference.”
She has been on the coordinating committee ever since, primarily helping with the Relay Rascals area.
This year, Sandy said she was honored and humbled to be asked to be the ambassador. As such, she will walk the first lap of the Relay and give a speech during the evening ceremony.
Sandy has only been back on the committee for a few months after getting the all clear from her doctors.
“Since the thyroid cancer, I get extremely tired,” Sandy said. “It’s nothing for me to work an eight-hour day, eat supper and take a couple hour nap with a dog on my lap. It’s hard to not let it change how you do things.”
That won’t stop her, or her extended family, from participating in the event, though. Her mother, a nephew and great-nephew plan on attending and making luminaria in honor of Sandy and her aunt.
Before her sister and daughter were diagnosed with cancer, Tish said she had never personally known anyone who had suffered from the illness.
“Now I know firsthand what the family goes through and the time that is spent with doctors appointments and visits,” Tish said. “I’m going to have a lot of tissues with me.”
Sandy described the luminaria as very touching, saying the service is always very emotional because they are remembering those who have died of cancer.
The Relay event, though, is also about celebrating survivors and supporting those who are currently going through treatment.
“It makes my heart happy to see all the survivors,” Sandy said. “It’s celebrating everyone who has beat cancer or is going through cancer.”
If Sandy had to give advice to those recently diagnosed, it would be to surround yourself with a strong support system, to not be afraid to ask questions and to fight for yourself.
During her battles with cancer, she would make phone calls to friends in the medical field, call doctors offices, write down questions and take them to appointments with her, she said.
“Life does not end with a diagnosis — it’s just the beginning,” she said.
Sandy gets her helping and fighting spirit from her grandfather, who she said was always involved with the community. A potato farmer, he would always take stock in the harvest instead of a paycheck and would remember people who were going without.
“So he’d go at like three or four in the morning and put bags of potatoes on their back porch — or at least different food or send them money,” she said.
Sandy has continued that tradition by not only volunteering with Relay For Life but also the Special Olympics. She also volunteered at UPMC Altoona for 15 years.
“After spending so long helping others, now she gets to have the spotlight put on her,” Tish said.
Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.