Sonja and Peggy Herndon are no strangers to personal tragedy.
The two women, originally brought together by their love for the same man, will now join forces on behalf of their sisters in the fight against cancer. On Saturday, April 24, Sonja, Peggy and their team ‘Uniting Sisters Fighting for Life’ will join 70 other teams on the grounds of Oakdale High School as participants of Oakdale’s Ninth Annual Relay for Life, an American Cancer Society fundraising event.
Sonja and Peggy first became acquainted over 20 years ago, when Peggy began dating Sonja’s son Torey. Eventually Peggy and Torey were married and Peggy became part of the family. Tragically in 2004, Torey was killed in an automobile accident, just outside of the city limits. As testament to their love for Torey, his passing created a stronger bond between the mother and daughter-in-law duo.
“We’ve always been close,” Peggy said of her bond with her mother-in-law. “We hit it off just fine from the beginning.”
Visibly touched, Sonja shared through tear-filled eyes the love and friendship she feels for Peggy, adding that while losing Torey may have brought them close, the loss of their sisters to cancer brought them even closer.
In September of 2009 Sonja lost her older sister Gail Leach to lung cancer. Gail was initially diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002. Four years later the family learned that the disease had metastasized to her lung. The diagnosis resulted in surgery on both lungs and an aggressive treatment plan.
“She did well for most of it,” Sonja said of Gail’s battle. “She really didn’t let it get the best of her. She did not let it get her down or slow her down. In April of last year she went to Germany to visit family.”
While Sonja had a number of good years with her sister (post diagnosis), Peggy was not as fortunate.
In late Spring of 2009 Peggy’s sister Jamie Neathery was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her battle lasted a total of seven months. In November of 2009, surrounded by family and close friends at the age of 51, Jamie completed her battle with cancer.
A story chronicling Jamie’s battle appeared in The Leader on July 8, 2009, just prior to the ‘Jammin’ for Jamie’ benefit hosted in her honor by friends and family. For all who attended, the evening was deemed as not only a fundraising success, but also a great time overall. Friends, as well as strangers, surrounded Jamie, doing what they could to support the wife and mother of two as she battled cancer.
“I’m so glad that she got to do it,” Peggy said of her sister’s night at the benefit. “It was such a great night, filled with so much love and friendship.”
Peggy noted she believed her sister’s optimism, spirit and overall excellent physical condition were factors that contributed to her making it seven months, post diagnosis.
“She did well for the most of it,” she said of her sister’s battle with cancer. “Then it just wore her down.”
As the holidays passed and the two women began making their way through life, each minus their sister, Peggy received a phone call. Jamie’s youngest child, Amee Neathery, 13, reached out to her Aunt for help with starting a Relay for Life team.
“I had already been thinking about it,” Peggy admitted. “When Amee called me and said she wanted to do a team, I was ready. I was just waiting for the call.
“And then I called Sonja.”
No stranger to the Relay for Life event, Sonja is a cancer survivor herself and past team captain for the Century 21 M&M and Associates team. She welcomed the opportunity to help with Peggy and Amee’s team. Her tenure as team captain and helping run the popular Hip Hop Soda Shoppe at the Relay, brought with it experience, enthusiasm as well as excitement from event participants.
“I just said yes immediately,” Sonja said. “I’m here for my sister and my daughter-in-law.
“I hope we have about 50 people on the team. That’s the number we’re hoping for,” she added.
Reflecting upon her past experience as team captain and fundraising guru, Sonja shared this time around it’s a bit different.
“It’s very different,” she said of the new team. “This time it’s about the sisters. It’s from the heart. It’s about all of us coming together. We want to make money and we want to raise awareness.”
As a survivor of breast cancer, Sonja is equally excited about Oakdale’s participation in this year’s CPS-3 (Cancer Prevention Study-3), which will be offered at the event (see related story).
“We believe we are getting closer to a cure,” Sonja said. “To have this study come to our town and give this opportunity to family members and friends, is just amazing.”
“We have a number of team members taking advantage of this opportunity,” Peggy added.
Both women are not only delighted, but also energized by the youth on their team.
“To go to the Relay for Life and see the kids that are there,” Peggy said of the area youth involvement, “it’s just so heartwarming. They each have their own story and some may just be there supporting their friends. It’s something that is going to touch their lives also. It teaches these kids that this is an okay thing.”
The enthusiasm of the young team members, as well as a group referred to as ‘Jamie’s Bootcamp Girls,’ has both women bubbling with excitement as they share some pre-event fundraisers.
Handmade bracelets and key chains have been distributed for sale at local businesses, Jamie’s son Jeremy is coordinating a swim/lunch party for members of his water polo team and the ‘taping of houses’ (with caution tape) are just a few ways the team plans to raise some money for the event.
“A fun, fun thing is something Jamie had always talked about doing with her Bootcamp girls and now they are making it happen,” Sonja said. “They are full speed into this ‘Business Girls Calendar’ that Jamie talked so much about doing.”
The calendars highlighting local businesswomen are being pre-sold for $20 apiece, with proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society.
“It is so important to them, that they complete her project,” Sonja added.
As the two women share stories of the sisters they will honor and the team that is coming together, it quickly becomes apparent that yet another loss has brought them even closer.
“I can’t really say exactly why and how Peggy and I are close,” Sonja said, “we just are. How do you put into words how you feel for a child or a best friend? I never feared that Peggy would drift away from us (following Torey’s death). She was family and my best friend then and always will be.”
Looking forward to her return to the track as a team captain, Sonja stated, “As a cancer survivor I am in amazement how this community comes together for this event. All of the pre-event fundraisers … donation cans, the (rodeo) parade entry, the sponsors, the volunteers, everything.
“When I get there and see it all set up, I am just so thankful. This event reassures me that there will be a cure for cancer.”
For additional information on joining Uniting Sisters Fighting for Life or their fundraising events contact Sonja Herndon at 380-2121 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oakdale’s Ninth Annual Relay for Life will be hosted from 9 a.m. on Saturday, April 24 to 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 25 at Oakdale High School. For additional event information contact Event Chair Dawn Jerkins at 605-4955 or Team Coordinator Debbie Dobbins at 602-0036.