On his 40th birthday, Greg Schlough learned he had stage III melanoma and would need surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thigh.
"I said, 'I'll never forget this birthday,'" said Schlough, a contractor in a family roofing business, recalling the meeting where his doctor told him the diagnosis.
Now, 12 years later, Schlough, of Norwich, is working to help those currently battling the disease as well as celebrate with fellow cancer survivors, at the American Cancer Society's annual Relay for Life for Southeastern Connecticut at Dodd Stadium June 9-10. Schlough is the first man to serve as the volunteer leader of the event, at 17 the oldest of several Relay for Life events in the region, according to Shannon Stahecki, community executive for development at the cancer society.
The event will draw participants from Norwich, Montville, Griswold, Lisbon, Voluntown, Preston, Colchester, Lebanon and other towns, who will walk in teams for 22 hours, Stahecki said. Usually, individual members of each team walk in shifts of about two hours until the conclusion of the event, but some participants walk for longer or shorter times. One of the cancer society's main fundraisers, the relay generates money through participation fees and donations that go towards cancer research.
But the event is as much about bringing the wide range of people touched by cancer - whether themselves, family members or friends - together as it is about raising money. Now in its second year at Dodd Stadium, the event had been at Montville High School before then, and teams from the Charles Murphy and Mohegan Elementary schools in Montville will still be participating this year, Stahecki said.
Heading the Relay for Life, Schlough said, is a "labor of love" that takes up about 20 to 25 hours per week of his time running organizational meetings, sending emails and recruiting participants. He was asked to be chairperson after participating in the walk for the past two years, completing 19 miles one year and 28 miles another.
"I just got hooked," he said. "Now I really want to get more people involved." One of his recent recruits, he added, was a team from the Lisbon Fire Department.
Schlough said he has been involved in various types of volunteer work over the years, including teaching CPR classes at the Red Cross and serving as a volunteer firefighter with the Taftville department. As the first male chairman of this Relay for Life, he said, his goal is to get more men to join the walk and volunteer.
"Cancer affects men as much as it does women, and I'd love to see more men get involved," he said.
He also wants his story to encourage others who may be battling the disease or who may face it in the future. Regular exercise and healthy eating, he believes, was largely responsible for his success at overcoming cancer, and he keeps up a regular regimen of gym workouts to help keep his mind and body fit. The psychological toll of cancer, he said, can be as difficult to deal with as the physical effects.
"Exercise really does pay off," said Schlough.
Along with exercise and healthy eating, Schlough said, he is also very careful about limiting his exposure to the sun, which can be especially challenging in his job as a roofer. He applies sunscreen several times a day, he said, and gets check-ups regularly.
The father of two daughters, ages 26 and 19, Schlough said he is looking forward to one day telling his grandchildren about how he beat cancer then got involved in helping others with the disease through the Relay for Life.
"I consider myself a very fortunate person," he said.