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Relay for Life kicks off tonight, honors cancer victims

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People whose lives have been touched by cancer will walk around the clock to remind Columbus residents about the fight to combat the disease and to honor those lost to it.

This year’s Relay for Life begins at 6 p.m. today in a slightly new location, the Columbus East student parking lot, where a makeshift walking track will be set up.

Event organizers did not realize East High School would be starting a major bleacher overhaul at the track, where the event is normally conducted. So a last-minute change was needed.

Kathy Toburen, American Cancer Society community representative and the event coordinator, called the move a minor inconvenience but recognized the importance of getting the word out.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of room (on the track), and we weren’t sure it would be safe, so we are moving across the street to the student parking lot,” Toburen said.

Relay for Life is an organized, overnight community fundraising walk. Because cancer never sleeps, each team has at least one participant walking on the track at all times, Toburen said.

The event will continue for 24 hours, wrapping up at 6 p.m. Saturday.

People in and around Columbus are encouraged to join more than 4 million people in 20 countries who take part in Relay events throughout the year.

Each team participates in fundraising in the months leading up to the event and sponsors donate to a participant, team or event. Teams and supporters are allowed to camp out around a track as members of each team take turns walking.

Participants who wish to use tents are asked to set up at the high school’s soccer field. Those without tents can set up in the middle of the parking lot, surrounded by the walkers.

So far 32 teams and 188 participants have raised more than $42,600 in advance of this year’s relay, a number that will grow as the event draws near. The fundraising goal is $65,000.

People interested in participating still have time to organize a team and register at the event or just show up to support teams that are walking.

Cathy Martoccia, whose Field of Dreams team has raised more than $6,800, got involved in the Relay for Life after her son, Caleb, was diagnosed with cancer as an infant.

“Some friends had a couple of teams in his honor, and my mother is a cancer survivor, and my father passed away from cancer. So it has hit close to home,” Martoccia said. She said Caleb had treatment at 1 and 2 years old for a rare form of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma but now is cancer-free.

Caleb, now 9, participates as a member of the Field of Dreams team.

Cathy Martoccia said most people get involved in Relay for Life because cancer has touched a family member or close friend.

Activities scheduled at this year’s Rally for Life include live music, food vendors, a beanbag tournament, an auction, a pizza-eating contest and water-balloon fights.

The first lap around the track is the survivor lap, during which cancer survivors walk to celebrate their victory over cancer, cheered on by participants who line the course.

Other ceremonies include the fight-back ceremony, symbolizing the emotional commitment participants make in the fight against cancer; and the luminaria ceremony, which takes place after dark.

Toburen said participants may purchase a luminaria bag personalized with a name, photo, message or drawing to honor of a friend or loved one who has been affected by cancer. The bags are placed along the walking course, and a lighted candle is inserted inside each to illuminate the walking path.

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the American Cancer Society, and this is the 20th year Columbus has participated in the Relay for Life. The theme for this year’s event is Finish the Fight.

“The American Cancer Society is committed to keep fighting until we find a cure,” Toburen said. “We’ll be happy to put ourselves out of business if we can accomplish that goal.”

Relay for Life began in May 1985, when Dr. Gordy Klatt walked and ran for 24 hours around a track in Tacoma, Washington, to raise money for cancer research. He raised $27,000 as a result of that walk; and a year later, 340 supporters joined the overnight event.

Since that time, the Relay for Life movement has grown into a worldwide event that has raised nearly $5 billion to fight cancer.

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