Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Cancer survivors Judy Shumake, sitting left, and her sister Gladys Broome, far right, walk in the survivors lap with Shumake's daughter, Tina Handrop, far left, grandson Drew Handrop and friend Felicia Rutledge during Relay for Life on Friday.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- She actually looks great.
He's lost all his hair, but he's fighting.
It's tough, but it's not going to beat us.
These are the types of conversations you overhear strolling through the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on the first weekend in May, stories of strength, struggle, loss and survivorship.
There are many reasons why Gwinnett's Relay for Life is the highest-grossing in the world, topping $2 million in funds raised for the American Cancer Society every year for the better part of the last decade.
The actual event, which began Friday and continued on into early Saturday morning, brings the real reason to the forefront -- cancer affects so many.
"It means to me that I made it another year," Kathy Hedrick of Suwanee, a 12-year survivor, said.
"That's what it means to me, one more year. And, like the shirt says," she added, pointing to her back, "you can't have too many birthdays."
Officially, 336 teams and 6,595 participants signed up to raise money for this year's Relay.
Unofficially, thousands more poured into the carnival-like atmosphere of the fairgrounds yet again, bedecked in all kinds of supportive apparel, from T-shirts to wings to outrageous tiaras.
"I don't care if you walk, or march, or prance or dance," emcee Scott Slade said prior to the survivors celebration lap.
"We're just happy you're here with us again."
Simultaneously a negative and positive sign -- more being diagnosed, but more fighting it -- a growing hoarde of survivors were led on their victory lap by the South Gwinnett High School marching band, to the loud applause of bystanders lined along the track.
Inside the Gwinnett Chamber's tent, a group of preteens appropriately sang karaoke to Justin Beiber's "Never Say Never."
Always trying to outdo their high school counterparts, Norcross High School students sat high upon an enormous plywood castle dubbed "Cure-a-lot," King Ar-cure preaching to the masses.
"Cancer is an evil dragon," one student decked in faux armor declared, "and it shall be slayed!"
An official total for money raised won't be available until today, but with the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised at the fairgrounds yet to be counted, Gwinnett Relay for Life's website tallied more than $1.4 million as of Friday night.
Bakersfield, Calif., the most immediate threat to Gwinnett's reign as the most lucrative Relay in the world, posted a total of just more than $2 million after its event last weekend.
All that, though, was the last thing on the minds of those at the fairgrounds Friday.
"It feels good to know that there are that many people rooting for you," Hedrick said. "And it also makes you feel how lucky you are."
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