Jen Zarko credits her daughter for saving her life.
While pregnant with Maylen, now 17 months old, Zarko's doctors discovered a cyst growing inside her ovary.
After learning about the risks of having surgery while pregnant, Zarko and her doctors agreed on a compromise: Doctors would deliver Maylen via Caesarean section a month before her due date and then remove Zarko's ovary and fallopian tube.
"A biopsy showed I had a grade 1 endimetrioid carcinoma - a relatively slow-spreading type of ovarian cancer that would have never been caught so early without that ultrasound," Zarko said. "My husband and I tried for a long time to get pregnant, and now I understood why it took so long. God works in mysterious ways!"
Maylen was the inspiration for Zarko's Relay For Life team, Team Lifesaver, which formed last year.
"I will always be grateful to my little girl for being my lifesaver," Zarko said. "After learning that I had cancer just days after I had given birth to my daughter - the most beautiful person I'd ever seen - I knew that I had to do as much as I could, not to benefit myself, but for her ... I want the money our team raises today to be the funding for the research that will find a cure for her generation. I want to know that if she ever hears those dreadful words, they won't sound so final."
Zarko said she began the team to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.
"Every woman knows the signs for breast cancer, how to do a self-exam and that they should be getting mammograms regularly past a certain age, but very few women even give a passing thought to ovarian cancer," Zarko said. "The symptoms of ovarian cancer - bloating, low back pain, feeling full quickly, lack of energy, etc. - are so common that many women would pass them off as nothing. Most of the time, ovarian cancer isn't diagnosed until it has spread to another organ that does show symptoms."
Zarko said she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 34, having had no family history of it and no real symptoms.
"I would love for one of our future goals to be to advocate for insurance companies to cover a routine ultrasound of the ovaries the same way they will cover a mammogram," Zarko said. "It's such a simple, non-invasive and painless procedure, and it's amazing to think how many lives could've been changed by early detection."
The team is holding sandwich and bake sale and yard sale, and plan to have a raffle, bake sale and gift sale of homemade items available for sale during the event, which will be held 4 p.m. May 18 to 4 p.m. May 19 at the Williamsport Area High School track.
Last year, the team raised $1,000 in its first year. Team co-captain Marie Mertes hopes team members each will reach their personal goal of $100. The team is comprised of about 10 members of Mertes' and Zarko's family.
Mertes, of Williamsport, got involved with the team to support Zarko, her aunt.
Along with Mertes and her family, the team also includes Zarko's mother, Huldah "Merry" King; her brother, Jim King, and his wife, Deb King; her nephew, Joe King, and his wife, Mylie King; her niece Crista Carnes; her nephew, Jimmy King, and his wife, Holly King; her cousin, Stephanie Ardell, and her daughter, Alysha Ardell; and friend, Anna Marie Bennett.
Mertes and her family, which includes husband Charles "Chuckie" Mertes II and daughters Autumn, 7, and Bella, 4, are excited to celebrate Zarko's one-year anniversary of being cancer free during this year's event.
"All I know is that I'm lucky - I was labeled a 'survivor' without having to put up much of a fight," Zarko said. "My heroes are the ones who truly have to fight to earn that title, and those survivors are another reason why I'm proud to walk that track on Relay day."
"This is a way to celebrate them [survivors]," Mertes said. "We plan to do this as long as we can."
Mertes said she helps organize the local fundraisers since Zarko and her husband, Ken, and daughter recently moved from Mount Carmel to Elysburg and can't make all the planning meetings.
"Jen graduated from St. John Neumann and grew up in Williamsport," she said.
Zarko said most of her family is in Williamsport, which is why she chooses to participate in the Relay For Life of Williamsport.
"Even though the rest of the family is not on the official roster, they all still help out with events and fundraisers when they can, and come take turns walking on behalf of Team Lifesaver during the event," Zarko said. "I'm incredibly grateful for everyone in the family who lends us a hand, buys a sandwich, walks a few laps or donates their talent to our fundraisers."
Mertes said her team will focus on a children's carnival for the event because she noticed a lot of kids attended last year's event and there wasn't much for them to do.
"We want to have face painting, a duck pond and create a phone booth out of a refrigerator box so we can change into our superhero costumes," Mertes said. "We get to have fun, too."
"A lot of people need to support this," Mertes said. "Too many tears are shed for these people."
"It's hard to find someone who hasn't been personally affected by it - maybe not as survivors, but as friends or family members of someone who battled cancer," she said. "Way too many people were affected because they lost someone they loved to cancer."