By DREW WINCHESTER
Cancer has touched almost everyone. Most have family members, friends, even casual acqaintances that have either fallen prey to the disease, or know someone who is battling or survived cancer.
Year in and year out, the American Cancer Society raises funds dedicated to researching, fighting, maybe even one day eliminating cancer. Formed in 1913 in New York City under the name American Society for the Control of Cancer, the organization now boasts 3,400 offices in the United States and Puerto Rico.
The organization's premier fund-raiser, Relay for Life, attracts thousands of people across the nation for an all-night walk-a-thon. Relay for Life raised more than $400 million in 2007 alone.
According to event Chair-woman Mary O'Toole, here in Lee County, 68 percent of all money raised stays in the county to fund cancer patient services. The remaining funds go toward the Ameri-can Cancer Society's national programs including re-search, advocacy and educational programs.
What: Relay for Life
Where: Ida Baker High School, 3500 Agualinda Blvd., Cape Coral
When: Friday, March 20, 6 p.m. - Saturday, March 21, noon
"This is the American Cancer Society's signature event," O'Toole said. "It really helps to fund research and advocacy, and to raise awareness. It's a fun and uplifting event."
At 18 hours, Relay for Life is much more than just walking (although there is plenty of that). Held at Ida S. Baker High School, the relay will feature a plethora of activities aimed at entertaining the entire family, all while raising money and awareness for cancer re-search and care.
Part of the relay amounts to a carnival like atmosphere, as a male fashion show (as in cross-dressing), all night karaoke, live "Jimmy Buffet type music," and a costume contest.
"It's really not a race. It's more of a big party where people get together and have fun," she said.
Part of the relay's success is the way it relies on self-made teams to raise money.
Teams must consist of at least 10 people, though there is no limit to the size of a team above that prerequisite.
Team Development Chair Alejandra Paipilla said the team building is a fun and essential part of the Relay for Life process. Teams can be made up of an entire business office, families, churches, ROTC, even a sports team like from a baseball or softball league.
Teams are also asked to construct a tent, where they will be able to coordinate, and sell foods and drinks to make extra money for the cause.
Paipilla has been the captain of the MWH office in Cape Coral for the last three years. This is the first year she's served as the team development chair.
"It's near and dear to me," Paipilla said of her involvement. "My mother passed away and my father is fighting prostate cancer. It makes it even more important for me. There really isn't anyone you can talk to who isn't touched by cancer in some way."
Paipilla touched on the true sentiments behind the efforts of those who take on the Relay for Life challenges.
Both O'Toole and Paipilla said the emotions can run high at these events, especially when cancer survivors join together for a ceremonial lap, which kicks off the Relay for Life all night walk.
"Emotions for the Sur-vivors Lap run very high," O'Toole said. "There are often survivors who are unable to physically walk. But Ida Baker has great handicap access, so we're able to accommodate those who can't walk with golf carts or wheels chairs."
Another highly emotional part of the relay is the luminaria ceremony, in which people light candles for those who have won, or lost, their battles with cancer.
"The midnight luminaria ceremony is one of the most emotional moments ... donations are made in honor of someone who has fought the battle and won, or fought the battle and lost," O'Toole added.
Despite having a record number of teams register for this year's relay, organizers have reservations about the economy's impact on fund-raising efforts.
O'Toole and her event committee challenged teams to think of new and inventive ways to go about their fund-raising efforts this year. She said the recent "Pink in the Rink," a partnership with Florida Everblades, yielded excellent results during a recent event at Germain Arena.
"Teams have really been thinking out of the box in terms of fund-raising," O'Toole elaborated. "It's not just the yard sale,/bake sale any longer. We did 'Pink in the Rink,' and we made $10,000 off that event. We hope to continue to come up with more interesting and exciting ways to raise funds in the communities."
Paipilla and her MWH team also took part in the "Pink in the Rink" event, raising over $1,000.
She said there is still plenty of time to form a team and sign up, as she'll be accepting right up to the start of the relay.
"We do have last-minute teams that sign up," Paipilla said. "The deadline extends up til the day of the event. There are still spaces available."
The relay is one two major nationwide fund-raisers for the ACS throughout the year.
The second major fund-raiser, Making STRIDES for Breast Cancer, focuses on raising money specifically for breast cancer research. In comparison, the relay raises money to fund research all types of cancer.
"It's funds research and education, it raises awareness, and provides something positive for people to work together," O'Toole said.
Of course, fund-raising is the relay's main purpose. Without those funds, hundreds of cancer patients in Lee County might not have the services they need to battle the awful disease.
But, the event is also about coming together, as a community, as survivors, to offer hope, courage and encouragement for those who are still fighting, and to honor those who lost that battle.
For O'Toole, it comes down to people helping each other. She has lost both her mother and father, an aunt, a cousin and six very close friends to cancer.
"A survivor is someone that was diagnosed yesterday, or diagnosed 10 years ago," she said. "Someone who was diagnosed 10 years ago can be an inspiration to someone who was recently diagnosed."
For additional information, or to register a team, please call 935-9881, or visit www.cancer.org.