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Cancer survivors, family and friends turn out for Modesto Relay for Life

A crowd of people who are determined to prove that cancer may win some battles, but not the war, cheered Saturday morning as Heidi Banghart released white doves and led hundreds of people on a victory lap around the track at Johansen High School.

The mom, who has battled ovarian cancer off and on for nine years, also received a patient courage award from the American Cancer Society, which sponsors Relay for Life events around the nation, including the one this weekend in Modesto.

Last year, Banghart walked the track in a purple bathrobe, leaning on a cane. This year, she had a steady stride and told the crowd that her cancer is in full remission.

"I will not lay down and die," Banghart said, drawing cheers from a crowd that was dotted with people wearing purple T-shirts that said "Survivor."

The 24-hour relay, which kicked off at 8:30 a.m. and concludes with an awards ceremony this morning, brought 102 teams to the field.

Teams paid $150 to participate and raised far more with raffles, games and donations, and promised to keep at least one member walking or running at all times.

Sponsors included local hospitals, nationwide retailers, small businesses and families who have been touched by a disease that is the second most common cause of death in the United States, topped only by heart disease.

Participants said the crowd thins in the middle of the night -- when sponsors bring in pizza, hold karaoke and show movies -- but every team keeps someone on the track until dawn breaks.

"The kids do those laps," said Janice Huizar of Modesto, whose family formed a team called Angels in the Outfield.

Relay for Life began in 1985 in Tacoma, Wash., when a surgeon raised $27,000 from family, friends and patients who paid to walk or run with him as he circled a track for 24 hours.

Teams joined the doctor the next year, and the relay now draws 3.5 million walkers and runners nationwide. The money goes to the American Cancer Society to support research and educational outreach. Nearly 1.5 million Americans battle the disease each year and 1,500 die each day.

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Relays were held in Ripon and Turlock earlier this month. Modesto's event is in its 16th year.

Tina Baker, a manager at Dress Barn who was co-chairman of the event, said the bleak economy prompted officials to scale back their fund-raising goals. Officials set their sights on $420,000, rather than the $500,000 raised last year, but are optimistic because they had two more teams than last year.

"We were really sweating," Baker said. "We weren't sure we were going to get as many teams, but they really pulled through."

The relay brought a carnival feel to the track in Modesto, because each team set up a booth to raffle off prizes, sell crafts or food, or raise money by playing games of chance.

At a booth called Scheuber Family for Life, the relay was treated as a family reunion, with relatives coming from Long Beach, Folsom and Modesto to support a worthy cause.

At Memorial Medical Center's booth, employees who work in the cancer unit dressed for Christmas and raffled off gifts, saying the best gift anyone could give is a clean bill of health in time for the holidays.

At Umbrellas of Luv, friends who met when their children were members of Beyer High School's marching band turned out again to help Leona Delos Reyes battle breast cancer.

Delos Reyes said she was speechless when her friends told her they wanted to form a relay team in her honor. That was four years ago, and the former band boosters have raised $50,000. All promised to be back next year.

Delos Reyes said she has learned one big lesson from cancer: "Treat every day as a gift."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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