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Relay For Life teams walk for 12 hours to raise money for cancer research

Luminaries line the track during the Kandiyohi County Relay For Life in this 2009 file photo. The middle one honors Zachary Madsen, who was diagnosed with cancer at 3 months old. He has now been cancer-free for 10 years. Luminaries also honor those who have lost the fight against cancer. Submitted photo courtesy of Kim Madsen of the American Cancer Society

WILLMAR -- In the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, long after most Willmar residents have gone to sleep, hundreds of determined, caffeinated people will still be awake and working to raise money for cancer research.

The Kandiyohi County Relay For Life, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, begins at 6 p.m. today and ends at 6 a.m. Saturday. For 12 hours, teams of eight to 15 walkers will continuously circle the Willmar Middle School outdoor track to raise money for a cure for cancer.

Though not everyone on a team will walk overnight, Relay co-chairwoman Tina Erpenbach said many people stay for the whole event.

"You'd be surprised at how many people are still up at 4 a.m.," Erpenbach said.

The event hopes to raise $150,000 toward cancer research through the American Cancer Society. So far, 467 individuals on 46 teams are signed up to participate, but anyone can show up tonight to walk, Erpenbach said.

Much of the money raised at Relay For Life benefits local programs in the community, according to Kim Madsen, community relations director for the American Cancer Society. The rest of the money goes toward cancer research being conducted in-state and nationwide.

"Everybody benefits from that research every day," Madsen said. "Cancer is a burden on everyone."

Tonight's Relay will begin with an opening ceremony and a survivor's walk, where about 170 cancer survivors will take the first lap around the track.

"To see (survivors) take that lap is very impactful," said Madsen, whose own son, Zachary, is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a malignant tumor, at 3 months old. After four months, he went into remission and stopped needing treatments. That year, Kim Madsen and her husband, Shawn, started volunteering with Relay For Life.

"Right away, (the Relay) was a time for us to celebrate Zak's survival," said Shawn Madsen, who is serving as Relay co-chairman this year for the first time. "It's a good event to be a part of."

This year, the event features two honorary chairmen, Larry Zink, of New London, and Don Anfinson, of Spicer. Both are cancer survivors.

"I don't think people realize until they come to the Relay how many people there are with cancer," said Anfinson, a prostate cancer survivor. He has been free of the disease for two years and started volunteering with the American Cancer Society in 2008.

His wife was also diagnosed with cancer around the same time, Anfinson said, and many of the American Cancer Society's resources helped them during their treatments. When Anfinson was being treated at the Mayo Clinic, he and his wife stayed at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge in Rochester, a place where cancer patients and their caregivers can stay at no cost.

"What the American Cancer Society can do for (cancer patients) is amazing," he said.

Cancer will affect 25,080 people from Minnesota this year, and 9,200 Minnesotans will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society website.

Erpenbach said most people have a direct connection to cancer, either within their family or among friends. She had already been involved with the Relay for three years when her mother died of cancer. That only made her more determined to raise money for a cure.

"It made me realize how important research is," Erpenbach said of her mother's death. "To me, that's the only way we're ever going to find a cure."

The American Cancer Society invests about $130 million every year toward cancer research, and the nonprofit organization also conducts its own research in cancer epidemiology, surveillance and health policy, according to its website.

"Relay For Life is our signature event," Kim Madsen said. "For those people who have gone through the cancer journey, Relay For Life is a big healing process. You're surrounded by people who understand that journey."

Erpenbach said everyone is encouraged to come out to the Relay and join the American Cancer Society in the fight against cancer.

"There isn't any one of us that doesn't know someone touched by cancer," Erpenbach said. "If we can at all make the cancer journey easier for someone else with the money we raise, that's so important. We have to believe in the fight against cancer."

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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