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A small girl squats among candle-lit paperbags.

Candles, which are kept burning throughout the Relay for Life event, pay tribute to those who have been affected by cancer.

More than a walk around the track

By Pauline Oo

Published March 28, 2006

When Jenny Meslow's 17-year-old son, Peter, was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer in 2003, a group of friends and family walked all night long around a Wisconsin university field track in a show of support. Meslow, a University of Minnesota employee for almost 25 years, was so touched by the gesture that she swore to bring the event, Relay for Life, closer to home.

Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society's 12-hour overnight walkathon to celebrate and remember those whose lives have been touched by cancer. The event, which has teams of 8 to 15 people taking turns walking or running around a track, raises funds for cancer-related research, programs, and services. In 2004, Relay for Life of the University of Minnesota drew 20 teams and raised $60,000 for the American Cancer Society. In 2005, those numbers jumped to 60 teams and $105,000. But in that same year, Meslow lost Peter.

"He died just before our second Relay For Life," says Meslow, assistant director of student support services in the Academic Health Center. "I continue to participate in the Relay for Life in honor of Peter [because] through it, I have the opportunity to share his story."

This year, Meslow is again spearheading a committee of Academic Health Center staff and faculty to organize the Twin Cities campus event. The 2006 Relay for Life of the University of Minnesota will be held from 7 p.m. Friday, April 21, to 7 a.m. Saturday, April 22, at the University Field House. The deadline to participate in this event is Friday, March 31; see Relay at the U.

Relay history

In May 1985, Gordy Klatt, a Tacoma colorectal surgeon, spent a grueling 24 hours circling the track at Baker Stadium at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma because he wanted to enhance the income of his local American Cancer Society office. Throughout the night, friends paid $25 to run or walk 30 minutes with him. After more than 83 miles, he raised $27,000 to fight cancer. Nearly 300 of Klatt's friends, family, and patients watched as he ran and walked the course.

Months later, Klatt pulled together a small committee to plan the first team relay event-something he had envisioned while circling the track. In 1986, 19 teams took part in the City of Destiny Classic 24-Hour Run Against Cancer and raised $33,000.

Source: American Cancer Society

"We anticipate yet another huge increase this year in the number of participating teams," says Meslow. "One aspect of Relay For Life, which I greatly admire, is the insistence on the part of the American Cancer Society that virtually everything be donated to ensure that administrative costs are as minimal as possible. Our incredible volunteers are currently seeking food, beverage, and prize donations to keep the team members nourished during the relay."

In the past, teams have been made up solely of University students, faculty, or staff, or a combination of all three groups, as well as members of a sports team, residence hall, fraternity, or sorority. Cancer survivors lead the opening lap. Those who participate and camp out in the Field House, adds Meslow, enjoy a party-like atmosphere and experience a special kind of camaraderie.

"[In 2003, when we walked for my son,] I was absolutely enthralled by this event," says Meslow. "It is a unique and powerful community-building event. It helps unite members of the University of Minnesota community whose lives are or have been affected by cancer. Innumerable students, faculty, and staff members share stories of loved ones who are living with cancer or who have passed away. These stories connect us in the hope that together we can do something to fight this dreaded disease."