UPDATE 8 a.m.: The 2010 Yellowstone County Relay for Life raised $654,700 for cancer research, organizers announced at a ceremony this morning.

"We say thanks by having fewer people hear, ‘You have cancer,'" event co-chair Linda Cladis told a crowd gathered at the West High track. "You did it and, boy, will we fight back with this amount."

The total surpassed the organizers' goal by nearly $30,000. Last year's event raised nearly $600,000.

Money raised at the event goes towards cancer research, education, prevention and support for cancer victims, all through the American Cancer Society. Much of the money will stay in the Yellowstone County area.

About 6,000 people participated in this year's relay, including more than 700 cancer survivors. Participants raised money leading up to the event, which began Friday evening and continued into this morning, and then spent last night and this morning walking laps around the track to remember those who have died from cancer, support those affected and join the fight in finding a cure.

"This is the result of passionate volunteers and a year's worth of work," co-chair Tim Janiak said. "It didn't happen in the last three days. It happened in the last 365 days."

INITIAL REPORT: Anne Hoffman, 82, has attended every Relay for Life since she was diagnosed with brain cancer more than five years ago.

“I have fought so hard and you just don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to fight,” she said. “It means a lot to me because this is my sixth summer here. I plan to come as long as I can.”

With her cancer now in end stage, friends and staff at St. John’s Lutheran Ministries, where Hoffman lives, honored her with a special entrance to this year’s Relay. They picked her up in a limousine, had some of her family members on hand and decorated her wheelchair. They also presented her with a shirt signed by caretakers at the facility.

“It’s an unbelievably personal touch for us this year,” said Carol Scovill, captain of the ministry’s relay team and a therapist at St. John’s. “She is very courageous, has a great sense of humor, and she’s had a profound effect on us.”

When more than 6,000 people gather together because almost all of them have a single thing in common, it’s pretty impressive. While that common thread is a devastating disease — cancer — their purpose is more hopeful.

“It’s a time to be a part of the solution because there’s hardly anyone that hasn’t been touched by it,” said event co-chair Linda Cladis.

Relay for Life raises hundreds of thousands of dollars locally and millions nationally each year for cancer research and support through the American Cancer Society.

In Billings, it brings together hundreds of cancer survivors with thousands of other people at West High to celebrate, remember and fight back for those touched by cancer and Friday night was no different.

A group of students from Columbus High School has raised about $20,000 for the event over the past four years through haunted houses, golf tournaments, 50/50 tickets and T-shirt sales. Member Isaac McNally, 17, said the group, called “Remember the Cougars,” enjoys the feeling that it’s making a difference.

For Isaac, this year is especially personal. His mother, Lynnette, died recently of colon cancer.

“There’s a lot of us affected by this,” Isaac said. “It shows that we’re willing to stand up for the fight.”

Organizers expected 6,000 people would attend this year’s relay, up nearly 1,000 from last year.

An estimated 700 cancer survivors, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “SURVIVOR,” walked in this year’s Relay. They started with the traditional Survivors Lap around the track. Afterward, members of about 190 teams who have been raising money for the event began doing laps throughout the night, which will end at 8 a.m. this morning with a closing Celebration Lap.

“It means we’re getting one day closer to a cure,” said Kendra Freeck, who is walking in honor of her grandmother, who died of leukemia 19 years ago. “It means we’re one day closer to not having to deal with this ugly, nasty disease.”

Later in the evening, volunteers and walkers lit as many as 8,500 luminarias — small paper bags with candles inside — along the track in honor of loved ones touched by cancer. On the tracks west of the bleachers, the word “hope” was spelled out with them and then later changed to “cure.”

Cladis said last year’s event in Billings raised the third most money in the Great Northwest Region — which contains Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming — behind Tacoma, Wash., and Eugene, Ore.

It raised about $600,000 in 2009 and organizers hope to bring in more than $625,000 this year. The total will be announced Saturday morning

“It’s the community,” said Karrie Erickson, Community Relationship Manager with the American Cancer Society. “This community is so supportive.”

Relay for Life started in 1985 when Dr. Gordy Klatt logged 83 miles in 24 hours around a track in Tacoma. The next year, 19 teams joined in for the first-ever Relay for Life. It caught on in Billings in 1994 before taking two years off after 1996. It has been an annual event since 1999.


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