BOULDER — In 1985 an oncologist in Tacoma, Wash., single-handedly raised $27,000 for research devoted to finding a cure for cancer. The dollars came from individual and group pledges that backed his goal of walking or running for 24 hours straight. The timeframe represented the 24-hour-a-day battle faced by cancer patients.
Since then the annual event has been officially named Relay For Life and been taken on by the American Cancer Society. This year 3,800 Relay For Life events will take place in the United States with nine foreign countries also participating.
Relay For Life is the largest single fund-raising event in the world.
In 2002, the event raised $243 million with more than 450,000 cancer survivors participating in the kickoff ceremonies — the Survivors’ Victory Lap. Community cancer survivors are invited to attend and participate in the lap.
After that, teams that have secured sponsors spend the next 18 hours walking or running around a community track — relay style. The money raised goes to research and programs of the American Cancer Society. Those programs include cosmetics classes and kits for cancer patients, free wigs and turbans for chemotherapy patients and bras and prosthesis for breast cancer patients.
In Boulder, Relay For Life starts at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 6, at Potts Field on the University of Colorado’s Boulder’s campus. The festivities go on throughout the night — ending with awards the following morning.
?We call it the biggest party on the planet,? said Boulder American Cancer Society Development Director Tammy Evevard. She points out that the event is a celebration of life with a community joining together to take up the fight as well as a fund-raiser.
?Dinner is on Wahoo’s Fish Taco, Pepsi and Culligan,? she added. ?There’s also going to be live entertainment — from bands to karaoke — as well as a balloon toss and other kids’ activities.?
The overnight camp-out includes a ceremony where candles are lit and placed in luminaria bags that surround the track, lighting the way for walkers and runners throughout the night. Each candle is dedicated to an individual — celebrating a cancer survivor or memorializing someone who lost the battle.
Different motivators drive the people who participate and organize Relay For Life events. Lizzy Halpern, 12, has been part of the event since she was five. ?I got involved through my dad who was going through a tough time with his mom who had cancer,? she said. ?She died when I was four — we were really close.?
Last year, Halpern used Relay For Life to celebrate her birthday — even though she was born in November. ?I asked my friends to each raise $100, and some even raised more.? Out of the 75 kids she invited, about 20 showed up to walk or run around the track, backed by dollars pledged by sponsors.
?This year Tammy called and asked me to be on the planning committee, and I started a kids’ unit,? she added. Halpern started looking for teams in the history club at her school, Summit Middle. ?They had been really affected because one kid in the class was diagnosed with cancer and another girl — her mom had just passed away. They were all eager to help out.?
Obviously a natural fund-raiser, Halpern coaches her teams in finding sponsors. ?A lot of the kids aren’t comfortable going door to door asking for money so I tell them that the worst that can happen is that people say ?no,’ and every ?no’ gets them closer to a ?yes.’?
Aside from enjoying pizza at midnight on the night of the event, Halpern is clear about her involvement. ?I want Tammy’s job when I grow up. I love Relay For Life — it heightens awareness. There’s not a person I know who’s not affected by cancer,? she explained. ?Plus, I’m really good at this — I don’t take no for an answer.
?Since I was 5 I’ve wanted to find a cure for cancer,? she added. ?I hope someone beats me to it, though, since I’m only 12 now.?
Angela Swilpa got involved with Relay For Life in 2001 while she was undergoing chemotherapy. ?I was diagnosed with breast cancer and picked up a pamphlet at the doctor’s office,? she said. ?I wanted my energy to be focused on this more than on my own cancer.?
As a team captain Swilpa feared that her treatment might hold her back from the tasks necessary so her neighbor offered to step in if she ever felt unable to carry through. ?The first year I wasn’t sure I’d have enough people for a team. I ended up with more than 20 friends and co-workers who raised an amazing amount of money — they knew what I was going through.?
In 2001 Swilpa’s team came in first place for the highest amount of money brought in — $6,500. ?We’re over that so far this year.?
In addition to the pledges her teammates are seeking, they also are holding a garage sale. Her daughter, a student at Fairview High School, is pulling together a fund-raising event at school.
?My biggest fear is around the fact that I have a daughter who is high risk for cancer now,? Swilpa added.
Gary Kornfeld, chairman for Boulder’s Relay For Life, reminds people that it’s never too late to pull together a team of 10 to spend the night camping. ?Lot’s of people do that at the last minute to go up in the mountains,? he said.
Kornfeld volunteered with the first Relay For Life in Boulder seven years ago. He credits Evevard’s enthusiasm and skill as motivators for his current volunteer position as well as the work done by his predecessor, Eric Kittelberger. ?Eric put an enormous amount of work into this,? Kornfeld said.
?The event is really tons of fun,? Kornfeld added. ?It’s great to be walking on the track at 2 or 3 in the morning, striking up a conversation with someone and hearing their story. Some have lost someone to cancer, some know someone with cancer.
?The theme of this event is about curing cancer, and the method is camaraderie of community. People walking together with a common purpose are very powerful.?
According to the American Cancer Society, there are almost 9 million people in the United States today who are cancer survivors. In the 1930s a person diagnosed with cancer had a 20 percent chance of survival compared to the 60 percent chance of today.
American Cancer Society funded researchers are responsible for numerous medical and screening breakthroughs. These include a test for prostate cancer screening, pap smears to detect cervical cancer, use of tamoxifen to reduce the risk of breast caner and a cure for childhood leukemia with combination chemotherapy.
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