Approximately 2,000 volunteers from throughout the community made a marathon out of the fight against cancer this past weekend, raising funds for the American Cancer Society in Los Altos' third annual Relay For Life. As of Sunday morning the relay had raised $598,800, within easy reach of organizers' $600,000 goal.
That marks a significant increase over last year's total of more than $480,000. Funds continued to come in and will be tallied through August.
Team members hefting banners and sporting kooky hats massed in the field before the 10 a.m. Saturday kickoff.
Crab, hamburger, shark and sombrero headdresses distinguished some of the teams braving the morning heat. Dotted throughout the crowd, cancer survivors were visible in purple T-shirts.
Volunteer coordinator Cynthia Sternberg donned a floppy bow tie and towering striped chapeau to stir up the crowds as the Cat in the Hat in keeping with the Relay 2006 theme, "Oh, the places you'll go!"
Channeling Dr. Seuss, Sternberg recited: "So don't forget the donations but today is for fun!/ There's still money to be raised./ There's still battles to be won./ And the magical things you can do when you know,/ That by walking in relay,/ Oh! The Places You'll Go!"
David Veneziano, chief executive officer of the California branch of the American Cancer Society, celebrated achievements in the fight against cancer, including a statewide 12 percent increase in survival rates. The society has funded the research of eight Nobel laureates and supported 64,000 cancer patients in California. The society also has advocated for such causes as an increase of the tobacco tax.
Mountain View High School student Liz Creger got an OK from her doctor to delay chemotherapy until Saturday afternoon so that Saturday morning she could join her former principal, Pat Hyland, also battling cancer. Together they released doves as more than 300 cancer survivors began the day with an emotional survivor's lap.
A small flock of doves looped above the crowd against a hot blue sky during the first few laps. As the teams stretched in exhibition around the length of the track, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band gamboled in the center of the field - wildly dressed students joined by a handful of local alumni, who grabbed an instrument and some tie-dye to join in.
A Los Altos resident and four-year survivor wiped tears as she watched the teams troop by. "It's sad, it's very emotional," she said. A friend had convinced her to come for the first time this year.
Jana Powell, another Los Altos resident, who watched the teams go by, is a 28-year survivor. "I was 24 years old, and had just moved, alone, away from home," she said. "It was the biggest shock in the world - at 24 years old, you think you own the world." A routine X-ray at the doctor's office found a tumor in her chest. "It was bad, I was all by myself. But I always believed, just hit it hard. This is what you've got to do." A few years of chemo and radiation later, Powell became one of the success stories commemorated at this year's event.
She said the relay gave her a chance to be open about her experience. "I don't really talk about it, ever," Powell said. "My friends were surprised to see me here. It's really emotional, especially the Caregiver's Lap. I can imagine how hard it was for my mom. She said over and over, 'If I could trade places with you, I would.'"
"My greatest wish for the future is that you will not be here, and your children and grandchildren will not be here, because cancer will have been cured," Relay chairwoman Jeanne MacVicar told the crowd.
Sixty-eight teams raised money for the American Cancer Society. Each team does its own fund raising, through events like barbecues and bake sales, and commits to keeping a member on the track throughout the 24 hours. On the sidelines and in the city of tents, groups continued the fund raising with the sale of snow cones and smoothies. The survivor's tent provided snacks and rest, and relaxing yoga sessions were scheduled twice in the 24 hours.
At the evening luminaria ceremony, the track glowed with lights from nearly 5,000 candlelit, decorated bags in honor or remembrance of those who have faced cancer. Walkers went quiet for a moment of silence in remembrance of those who could not be there. Survivors gathered to carry the Chain of Hope, more than 1,700 links each representing a year of survival.
Los Altos High School junior Margaret Lewis performed two of her original songs during the ceremony. She had sung one of them to her mother's twin in the hours before she died of cancer. "I sang it at her funeral, and I sing it at every show. It's just an honor for me to get to do that for her," Lewis said. She plans to record the songs for people who would like a CD to keep.
Singer Janie Lidey performed a song specially written for survivors as well as an evening concert. Earlier in the day Sorella!, the Spice Islands Polynesian Dancers and a silent auction added entertainment.
The relay has evolved over its three years as new participants join and traditions grow.
"One thing that's unique about Los Altos Relay is that it doesn't come with a recipe," said Jan Masters, the relay chairwoman for survivorship. "It's about the process of participating. It's a physical way to express hope."
Youth play role
In the KIDZONE tent, youngsters perched on chairs from Linden Tree Children's Recordings and Books to color in the shade. Next to them, Hollis Bischoff hosted the Knit a Row tent for a second year, providing an oasis for fund raising with the fingers as well as the feet.
Among the many elementary school students who turned out for the event, Oak School's young cougar was braving the heat Saturday morning, as was Loyola's lion. Almond, Blach, Covington, Loyola, Oak, Santa Rita, Pinewood and Springer schools sent teams, as did Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. Mountain View students Kristen Benner and Emily Bernstein brought sleeping bags, planning to spend the night in the city of tents that had sprung up on the lower field.
"In the last year, I've been exposed to a lot more people who have cancer, and it has affected my life," Bernstein said, citing a classmate of theirs who has been ill. Benner said that a sophomore research project on cancer had taught her about the power of fund raising. They held a garage sale to raise money.
"This is all about love and anger and the need to fight back, to have a place to put your emotions and deal with grief and celebrate life together," said MacVicar, a survivor of breast cancer. "It's very healing for people suffering with grief and empowering to survivors to know a lot of other people have gone through what they are.
"For some people it's the best thing that's happened to them after they heard the words, 'You have cancer.'"
For more information or to donate, visit www.losaltosrelay.com.