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Honorary Survivor hopes others can learn from her experience

Donna Czaja, named Honorary Survivor for this weekend's UB Relay for Life, wants to make sure relay participants know that early detection is key. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published April 10, 2014

The walls of Donna Czaja’s office are lined with UB memorabilia and colorful masterpieces courtesy of her two sons, Ryan, 20, and Justin, 14, from their grade school days. The drawings, like the array of family photos on her desk, catalogue the growth and development of her children and the loving family she and her husband, Kevin, have nurtured over the years.

But they also serve as a reminder of the life Czaja could have missed because of the three words no one ever wants to hear: “You have cancer.”

Those were the words Czaja’s doctor told her after a routine checkup more than a decade ago. “I’m only 34,” Czaja remembers thinking. “I can’t have cancer…”

Now a 12-year survivor, Czaja has come to see that appointment as a godsend. “If I didn’t go to get that checkup, it could have been another year and who knows what could have happened,” says Czaja, who hopes to spread that message of early detection as the Honorary Survivor for the ninth annual UB Relay for Life, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday and continuing into Saturday in Alumni Arena, North Campus.

Czaja lost her mother to brain cancer only a few years before her diagnosis. Her father had cancer and her step-mother was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Czaja feels lucky to have found out as soon as she did.

“Early detection is key,” says Czaja, who works in University Business Services at UB. “Sometimes people know something’s not right, but they wait a year to go to the doctor. But after a year, the cancer, or whatever it happens to be, can be a lot worse.” She wants to make sure that the more than 1,200 participants in this year’s Relay for Life know how important regular doctor’s appointments can be.

“When students graduate, they can take their experiences from here and apply it to other communities,” she says. “And we really want to get the faculty and staff involved this year, too. It’s so easy to register — you just show up and give your name and email.”

Czaja has been a growing presence in Relay for Life since a friend encouraged her to attend an event in 2004. “I couldn’t believe the amount of people,” she remembers. “The theme that year was medieval, so to get to see all the costumes and castles laid out around the track was really cool. They had me hook, line and sinker.”

Czaja is now a committee chair and her family continues to support Relay for Life, through UB and their local branch. Her son, Justin, is now on the committee for the Lockport Luminarium — the portion of the event when candles are lit around the track in remembrance of loved ones lost to cancer — and her son, Ryan, and husband, Kevin, are regular participants, supporting Czaja’s cause just as they supported her when she was battling the disease.

“I had family and that support system meant so much. It’s the small things. My kids were so little, so just a hug could make such a difference,” she says. She also remembers how much easier it was when she could just sit and talk with her two sisters on the phone. Now she tries to offer the same support to others.

As she prepares for her responsibilities as Honorary Survivor, Czaja looks back on her relationship with the disease that has taken so many lives. “It’s strange because I don’t think of myself as a cancer survivor,” she says. “It’s been so long now and my cancer was so minute compared to what I saw with my mother and my step-mother, and what I see in other people.”

Czaja also helps raise money for Hospice and she’ll participate in the dental school’s Run for Smiles 5k later this month, but fighting cancer will always be her primary objective.

“Cancer never rests,” Czaja says. “That’s why Relay for Life is an all-night event. That’s why it’s so important. It gets the word out, it raises money for research and even if just one person is a little more likely to go to the doctor after, that could make all the difference.”


As a UB grad, five-year relayer, two-year survivor and two-year committee member, I can only applaud your desire to give back. You stand as a true example of what Relay for Life is all about. In the end, our goal is to make the relay obsolete and with great leaders like you, we can do it.


William Driscoll