Karin Trujillo fights cancer through annual Relay for Life

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“Holy cow! That’s awesome,” exclaimed Karin Trujillo when learning she is one of this year’s Unsung Heroes.

For the past five years, the 48-year-old Los Lunas school librarian has been the driving force behind raising money and awareness for the fight against cancer.

Janis Marston-News-Bulletin photo: Karin Trujillo, a Los Lunas Schools librarian, has been organizing the annual Relay for Life in Los Lunas since 2008.

With an ever-growing support group — beginning with an assistant at work and two young boys helping her stay on track — Trujillo makes the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life happen every summer.

But it is a year-round commitment to prepare for the overnight event at the Los Lunas High School baseball field. For five years, it has been Trujillo who’s shouldered this commitment and dedication.

Her introduction to Relay for Life came in 1998 when her father started the event in Socorro to honor his mother, a cancer victim nine years earlier.

“It was therapy for him,” Trujillo said.

The child of community-minded parents, Trujillo said volunteerism and community service is in her blood.

“It’s what I love. When it’s in your blood, there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said.

So, in 2008, when she saw a newspaper advertisement about someone needed to oversee Relay for Life in Los Lunas, she answered it without hesitation. She’s been at it ever since.

A school librarian for 22 years, Trujillo’s early involvement got traction at Katherine Gallegos Elementary School. At the time, her library assistant, Tina Collister, had ovarian cancer and first-grader Garret Martinez had just lost his father to cancer.

They were her original converts and are still helping, along with Garret’s younger brother, Lucas.

“That’s why we keep doing what we do,” Trujillo said of all the work behind the relays, when she was chairing the event. “They won’t let me forget.”

Celebrate — Remember — Fight Back. These are the keystones of the Relay for Life movement, which, according to its website, has drawn more than four million participants across the globe to the cause.

It began in 1985 in Tacoma, Wash., when Gordy Klatt, a surgeon, ran around a track for 24 hours, raising $27,000 for the fight against cancer.

Since then, the event has touched 20 countries as people of all walks of life walk, jog, or run to raise awareness as well as money.

“We celebrate those winning their battle against cancer,” Trujillo said. “We always start with the survivors.”

They can be spotted quickly, walking around the Los Lunas track in their deep-purple T-shirts.

“We remember those who’ve lost their fight,” Trujillo said, explaining how more than 500 luminarias lining the track are lit once darkness comes. “It’s an overnight event,” she said of the relays, “because cancer never sleeps.”

And, she said, “We’re fighting back so no one has to hear the words ‘You have cancer.’”

She calls the relays therapeutic.

“It’s a way to put our pain to good use.” She stops. “No, this is what I want to say: Something good comes out of something really bad.”

Trujillo uses a video of the 2012 Relay for Life as a recruiting tool. It’s a powerful 10 minutes of people of all ages, economic levels and ethnicity — cancer isn’t selective.

“I can talk and talk all you want but until you’ve been to (a relay), you’ll never understand,” she says. “It’s a whole community coming together to support one cause.”

Unfortunately, she adds “there are very few in the community who haven’t been touched by cancer.”

Now Trujillo is broadening her involvement.

“My new passion is the advocacy arm of it,” she said.

As chairperson of the New Mexico Council for Relay for Life, her responsibilities include overseeing all of the state’s 29 relays.

“We’re the bridge between the (American Cancer Society) staff and those who hold relays.”

Her father, George Austin, is on the council, she adds with a smile. “I’m his boss.”

Also in charge of youth involvement, she has assembled an entourage of young helpers at Valencia Middle School, one of four schools where she is librarian.

Last week, in the spirit of Halloween, 20 middle school youngsters helped with the first fundraiser of the year for next summer’s relay. They sold Boograms for a dollar each during lunch to, as the hand-made sign stated, “Scare Cancer Away!”

All of them have their own stories to tell about cancer, ranging from losing a father to a mother recently diagnosed to one, seventh-grader Octavio Lopez, who had a cancerous brain tumor removed when he was a little boy.

There’s another group of students who have come up through the ranks at Katherine Gallegos school.

“I had Garret and Tina tell their stories. We talked to students,” Trujillo said of that first year of her organizing Relay for Life.

The next year showed a little increase in participation but 2010 was the year things took off.

In addition to the communitywide Relay for Life, Trujillo and company went schoolwide, with a glorified field day called “Relay Recess.”

This year’s event, set for May 9, will be the third and $7,000 has been set as it fundraising goal.

If the arithmetic progression can be trusted, the goal seems feasible as $5,000 was raised the first year, followed by $6,000 more last year. The money raised at Katherine Gallegos Elementary was added to the $43,000 raised at this summer’s Relay for Life in Los Lunas.

But this is chump change compared to the millions of dollars cancer research depends on from the federal government ― a government that has instituted automatic spending cuts because of so-called sequestration.

Last month, Trujillo and four other New Mexicans with the Cancer Action Network, the American Cancer Society’s lobbying arm, visited Washington, D.C., to talk with the state’s Congressional delegation about ending sequestration.

They also lobbied for continued funding for palliative care, which takes a holistic approach — from spiritual and nutritional needs to education and pain medication — in treating cancer and other chronic diseases.

The federal government is the largest funder of cancer research, Trujillo said, but now, because of budget cuts, scientists have to go look for money to support their research instead of staying in the laboratory, looking for a cure.

She said she’ll take her lobbying points to Santa Fe in February, along with some of her students.

“I want the students to pair up with the legislators,” she said, noting the necessity to educate the youngsters about how bills become laws, how government spending is decided.

There is an urgency as well as conviction in her voice — call it an inner truth.

Then she reveals the rest of her story.

Trujillo herself might need these students to help her down the road.

She suffers from chronic ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine, which was diagnosed when she was 18 but went untreated until she was 24.

“Chances are I’ll get colon cancer,” Trujillo said. “While I’m well, I’m trying to educate these kids so they’ll take care of me and take over the relays.”