Candles glowed in the darkness. Feet pounded the pavement. People wearing purple t-shirts marked “Survivor” smiled and waved as they marched around the track.
Those survivors had either battled or were still battling cancer. They were participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life, which raises money for cancer research and funds programs which help cancer survivors. People form teams, raise money and walk laps in exchange for donations. Many people camp out at the 24-hour relay.
As someone who’s walked laps for the past 11 years, I’ve seen how the event works and how it inspires us in the fight against cancer. My team is a family one which honors the memory of my late mother-in-law, Sally McKinney, who died from uterine cancer nearly eight years ago. She walked in the survivors’ lap at several relay events before she left us. We light a candle in her memory every year during the relay.
Walking For a Cause
Relay began in 1985 when Dr. Gordy Klatt walked and ran around a track in Tacoma, Washington. He raised nearly $27,000 that first year. The next year, more than 300 people joined him. Since then, the event has spread all over the globe and raised nearly $5 billion. Each year, relay events raise about $400 million for the cancer society, according to the American Cancer Society
Team members raise money in all kinds of ways. Some collect bottles and cans for deposit money. Some members hold fund-raising events at local restaurants. Other team members just ask friends, family and co-workers for donations. Facebook has helped me spread the word and solicit donations.
Each relay starts with the survivors’ laps. They smile proudly as they walk their laps. Onlookers cheer and clap for them. This can be an emotional time for our team made up of Sally’s grown children, grandchildren and in-laws such as myself. We remember how proud she was to make this walk year after year.
Next up are the caregivers. They are the ones who take care of cancer survivors, driving them to countless medical appointments and helping them cope with their disease. They also get a warm round of applause from the spectators.
Then, the seemingly endless lap walking starts. Event organizers do everything they can to make it fun for the participants. Last year’s relay had a safari theme. Giraffe, zebra and elephant balloons bobbed in the breeze. Some people walked wearing safari hats. One person dressed as a gorilla as he (or was it she?) walked laps. I never did find out which team the gorilla belonged to!
Walkers could also belt out tunes during karaoke, swivel their hips during the hula hoop contest or clap, sway and twirl as they did Zumba. A local folk band played songs far into the night. A disc jockey kept the crowd entertained. Children played games in the youth tent.
But the mood turned somber again when darkness fell, and it was time for the luminaria ceremony. A luminaria is a candle placed in a bag and weighted down with sand which can be purchased in honor of a survivor or in memory of a loved one who lost the fight to cancer. Our team lit a few candles in memory of Sally.
Some had pictures taped to them. One luminaria had a picture of a garden and the message: “Tending your garden in heaven.” Another one had a New York Yankees logo on it. Some had simple messages scrawled on the bags: “Miss you, Dad.” “In loving memory of Kathy.” “In memory of Bob.”
Candles glowed all night long as people continued walking their laps. By morning, some had burned out while others were still burning. Some walkers yawned and sipped coffee. It was a long night for many people but we didn’t mind. Knowing that we made a difference in the lives of cancer survivors was enough to keep us going for yet another lap.
A version of this article was previously published on Wikinut
American Cancer Society
My own experiences walking in the relay for more than 10 years.