Party with purpose: Thousands gather to fight cancer

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

LAWRENCEVILLE -- At least 8,000 people showed up at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on Friday night for the biggest party of the year.

It wasn't a concert, a festival or the annual county fair.

It was Relay for Life -- the annual all-night get together raising money for cancer research and celebrating the lives of survivors.

Talk about a party with a purpose.

"There's so much positive energy and so much hope," said Jennifer Thilo, the executive director of Delmar Gardens senior community in Lawrenceville. "It's great to see how much effort people have made. And it's wonderful to see schools, senior communities, police, just this wide range of people together for this cause."

Thilo and her Delmar crew of "seven or eight" came dressed as butterflies Friday, and were dancing as hard as anyone as the survivors finished their ceremonial lap. It's that mindset, that willingness to celebrate, that makes Relay for Life what it is.

Among the 460 or so campsites were a Christmas-themed "cancer got run over by a reindeer" tent, the Sheriff Department's "jail for cancer," Norcross High School's enormous train and hundreds of other goofy booths.

There were funnel cakes, balloon animals, and karaoke contests, raffles, auctions and games.

Then there was the "Purple Glove Dance" sponsored by Mothers and Daughters Against Cancer, where hundreds of survivors and supporters performed a silly dance together while wearing purple latex gloves.

Yes, laps around a track are technically involved. But the "relay" part of Relay for Life is almost secondary -- it's more a celebration of the "life" part.

"I think we're winning," said Duane Downs, an American Cancer Society volunteer. "I think because of a community that supports it this way, we're getting the word out that there's a hope and a chance. And it's just something that it makes you proud to be a part of."

"It's just a great experience," he went on. "I wouldn't miss it."

Gwinnett's version of Relay for Life is the most prolific in the world. As of late Friday night, it had raised almost $1.5 million for a cure -- and that's not including the proceeds from all the games, raffles and other events throughout the night and into the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Those who don't participate in Relay for Life may think of it as a somber event, and yes, there are moments of remembrance, tears and touching tales of those that lost their fight.

But when it all boils down, Relayers will tell you, it's about coming together and celebrating the fight to carry on.

Said Mary Fenton, a 14-year survivor: "It just feels good."