Young moms' cancer deaths inspire Springfield's 'Relay for Life'

by Jodi Benjamin
Posted 5/11/23

Once again, the Springfield Township School District will host the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of the Wissahickon Valley.

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Young moms' cancer deaths inspire Springfield's 'Relay for Life'


One of the first decisions that Dr. MaryJo Yannacone made after becoming superintendent of the Springfield Township School District in December 2020 was to reopen the schools during the pandemic. Less than two years later, the new superintendent confronted another decision — a much simpler one, and for her, a virtual no-brainer: Will Springfield host the 2023 American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of the Wissahickon Valley?

For Yannacone, the answer was an enthusiastic yes! In her past role as principal of Strath Haven High School in Delaware County, she had participated in the Relay For Life for years. In fact, she considered it one of the proudest days of the school year, second only to graduation. 

“This event is something special to me,” Yannacone said. “The fight against cancer is something that everyone can rally around. It affects everyone in life-changing ways.”

Unfortunately, Yannacone has personal experience with the toll taken by cancer. Her grandmother, her aunt, and her best friend’s mom all died from the disease as young mothers, leaving behind young families. “As a child, I was very conscious of cancer and the devastating impact it had on families,” she said. Later in life, Yannacone would lose friends to the disease, and both she and her spouse would become cancer survivors.

The 2023 Relay For Life of the Wissahickon Valley is open to everyone and will take place at the Springfield Township High School stadium on Saturday, May 20, 4 to 10 p.m. In case of inclement weather, the event will be held in the high school gym.  

So, what is Relay For Life? Despite its name, it’s not a race. It is a family-friendly community event to fight cancer. Abundant in food and fun, Relay offers contests and games, music and dance performances, raffles and silent auctions, face painting and henna tattoos and the opportunity to make cards for cancer patients. Participants can choose to walk or run laps around the high school track, earning a necklace of plastic feet as they go. 

One of the things Superintendent Yannacone likes best about Relay For Life is its three-pronged approach: attendees show their support for the fight against cancer, celebrate cancer survivors and remember loved ones lost. The Survivor Ceremony begins at 7 p.m. with remarks by Eric Gershman, a popular English teacher at Springfield High School who fought his own battle with cancer several years ago. The cancer survivors in attendance at the event are honored with gifts and are invited to take a celebratory lap around the track. 

The signature Luminaria Ceremony — and Yannacone’s favorite part of Relay — takes place at 9 p.m. The track is lined with white bags bearing the names of loved ones who have battled cancer. As the stadium lights are extinguished, these luminaria bags are illuminated, and the names are solemnly and respectfully read while the crowd walks in silence. 

Reflecting on Relay For Life in general and the Luminaria Ceremony in particular, Yannacone said, “In this day and age, especially with everything going on, everyone can benefit from something that pulls people together with a shared sense of purpose.”

The Relay For Life is open to everyone of all ages, not only in Springfield but in all surrounding communities as well. Attendees are welcome to stay for the whole six hours or come by anytime between 4 and 10 p.m. There is a minimum $5 entry donation, with all proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society, whose mission is to champion cancer prevention, detection, treatment and patient services through breakthrough research and 24/7 support. 

You can learn more about the Relay For Life at, where you can also create a fundraising team, register as a cancer survivor or dedicate a luminaria in memory, honor or support of a loved one who has been affected by cancer. 

For questions about Relay For Life or for information about volunteering at the event, email