Lights of Hope to illuminate Capitol steps, advocate for cancer research

The steps of the Oregon State Capitol will soon glow with over 500 lights, each honoring a cancer survivor or a person who died from the disease.

Salemite Kathy Ottele, who is organizing the event, keeps a list of her family and friends that have died from cancer. Though that list has only grown in the years she’s been working in cancer prevention advocacy, so has the list of loved ones who have survived it.

To her, the lights represent the hope that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean the same death sentence it did a few decades ago.

“It just gives the hope that we have, and we are moving in the right direction. In the 25 years I’ve been a volunteer, the death rates dropped 33%. We have over 18 million people living as cancer survivors today,” she said.

Lights of Hope is a nationwide event by the American Cancer Society, where volunteers write names and messages from the community on white paper bags to be lit by battery-powered tea-lights.

On Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 8 p.m., the display will be at the Capitol for the first time. The event serves as a fundraiser for the organization, and a visual reminder of the impact of cancer as the group continues its advocacy work to make screenings more accessible.

Ottele is a five-time cancer survivor who also lost her father, mother and two younger sisters to cancer. She began volunteering for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network 25 years ago. She hopes that the display will inspire people to get screened and find cancer early, when there is a higher chance to successfully treat it.

“I basically decided that I could fight back,” she said. “I can use my voice, and I can work with my elected officials and impact millions of people when it comes to diagnosing, treating and curing cancer.”

In her years volunteering, Ottele has been to Washington D.C. to advocate directly to members of Congress for increasing the federal budget for cancer research, and making testing more accessible. She said advocates first took Lights of Hope to the nation’s capital about 20 years ago.

“We took white bags that have the names of these people, and then we set them out for them to see there at the Capitol, and then it just kept growing,” she said. Now, tens of thousands of lights are put up annually around the country.

Ottele had the idea to put the lights on the state Capitol steps several years ago, but kept hitting roadblocks.

As events shut down during Covid, Ottele said volunteers instead put the bags on their porches, windows and driveways throughout Salem. The next year, the display was canceled due to heavy rain. Last August, they opted to have the display on the Willamette Queen boat on the Willamette River.

Wednesday’s event will be the fourth display of the summer. Since June, displays at the Salem Cancer Institute and community events aimed to promote screening, but the goal of the Capitol display is to send a more direct message to legislators about bills aiming to reduce cancer.

“It means a lot to us to have that symbolism, because we did spend a lot of days in that legislature this year, walking up and down those steps on State Street,” she said.

This year, the group had a bill to ban flavored tobacco and vaping products that did not make it out of committee.

Nationally, Ottele is advocating that Medicare cover a multi-cancer early detection blood test, once it is approved by the FDA, called PATHFINDER 2, that can detect 50 types of cancers in early stages. Ottele participated in a study of it at Salem Hospital.

“Two weeks later, I got the phone call saying, ‘Kathy, there are no cancer cells in your blood,’” she said. “And with my family history and my cancer-phobic mind, that’s the best phone call I could ever receive. So that’s been really driving me too.”

For a $10 donation, people get a bag they can dedicate to a cancer survivor or someone who died from it. The pictures they take of the lights on Wednesday will be Oregon’s contribution to the nationwide Lights of Hope campaign on Sept. 19.

Anyone interested in donating for a bag can contact Ottele by email at [email protected] or by phone at 503-551-2239, or by visiting the fundraiser’s webpage.

Clarification: Ottele specifically volunteers for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.