Pleasanton's annual Relay for Life fundraising event returns today with new themed laps and traditional activities, including the luminaria and fight-back ceremonies at the Pleasanton Middle School track.
The track is located at the corner of Bernal and Case avenue, across from the Pleasanton Public Library.
The 24-hour cancer fundraising walk is sponsored by the American Cancer Society and raises money toward cancer research and local organizations that assist cancer patients during treatment.
During Relay for Life, teammates take turns walking laps around the middle school track for 24 hours, which is symbolic of the notion that cancer never rests as well as the sleepless nights cancer patients experience after being diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society.
Pleasanton resident Kirstin Litz is the survivor speaker this year, and during Relay for Life, she will publicly share her story about her personal battle with cancer.
"Through this whole experience, I've kind of laughed about it or had a positive thought about it," Litz said in a recent interview. "So, when I get up to speak I don't plan to bring tears, I plan to bring laughter because I think it's more important to laugh than to cry."
Litz learned about Relay for Life about two years ago and attended her first relay last year.
"I went to the event just to learn more about it and that's when I learned it only costs $10. And I thought to myself, 'Why have I not been doing this?'" she said.
Last October, Litz was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery nearly a month after her diagnosis and was told shortly after that she did not need chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
"Coming to terms with the word 'survivor' is really hard because all I feel like is I had some surgery and I didn't go through the hard parts that other people have had to endure," Litz said. "The one thing I do really appreciate is that I now have a deeper understanding of the disease, and I have friends that know people with breast cancer and ask me to talk to them and I can share my knowledge."
Litz was an advocate for cancer awareness before her own diagnosis because her grandfather lost his battle with prostate and bone cancers, her father is a prostate cancer survivor, and a coworker and friend survived breast cancer.
Since 2002, she has participated in cancer walks and volunteer activities prior to discovering the local Relay for Life event.
"I like that Relay for Life is for all cancers. It's not segregated to one and that allows a lot more people to participate when they realize, 'I know someone with cancer,' and this walk is generic and encompasses it all," she said.
Earlier this year, the Relay for Life organizers hosted a "kick-off" event to celebrate the lives of survivors and honor those who have died. Terrie West was the survivor speaker at that event sharing her experience fighting ovarian cancer.
" I have been blessed and given a second chance to live my life now that I have been through this cancer journey," West said in a recent interview.
West was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in January 2014 and had extensive surgery followed by six rounds of Paclitaxel and Carboplatin chemotherapy every three weeks.
"I was invited to the Pleasanton Relay for life by my friend Dan Kavanaugh, also a cancer survivor, in July of last year to hold the Survivor flag and walk around the track as part of the initial ceremony to kick off the event," said West.
"I had just completed my sixth round of chemo the week before so the experience of walking around the track brought a lot of emotion. I shed tears when I saw my name on the chalk board as I rounded the track," she added.
Like Litz, West had also been affected by cancer before being diagnosed with the disease. In 2012 West's father was diagnosed with Large B-cell Lymphoma. She said she made trips back and forth to San Diego where her parents live to support him alongside her mother throughout his treatment.
West's father is currently in remission.Her status is now "NED" -- no evidence of disease. She will have to visit an oncologist every three months for the next five years where in after that time she will be considered in remission, she said.
"I am really looking forward to this year's Relay for Life in Pleasanton as I will be paying it forward to those that will be diagnosed with cancer and to those who have lost their journey to this disease, and I will honor them with a luminaria tribute bag," West added.
This year's relay is set to kick off at 9 a.m. July 18 with the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department presenting colors and the national anthem being performed by Maddy Hudson, the Pleasanton teen who made it to the top 30 on the most recent season of "American Idol."
The theme for Pleasanton's relay is "Lights, Camera, Action, HOPE," and according to event chair Lisa Brown, organizers plan to give survivors the "red carpet treatment."
Each relay lap has its own theme. Some of the returning favorites are Bling your Bra, Cowboy/Cowgirl and Hawaiian/beachwear. The new lap themes include Hollywood, Miss Relay and Winter Wonderland.
This year marks Pleasanton's ninth Relay for Life event. Last year, 26 registered teams, 62 cancer survivors and 236 individual participants came out for the local event -- totals organizers hope to increase this year.
In addition to the relay, food, games, music and dance performances are scheduled throughout the event. Pleasanton North Rotary will be offering free lunches to all survivors and $5 meal combos to other event participants.
After nightfall, the annual luminaria lighting ceremony takes place, during which candles are lit inside decorated bags and placed around the relay track in honor of those who've been affected by cancer and a slideshow is displayed as a tribute to people who have lost their battle with cancer.
Since its founding in 1986, Relay for Life has raised nearly $5 billion in more than 5,000 communities across the United States, and non-governmental cancer organizations in 20 other countries have received licenses from the American Cancer Society to host their own Relay for Life events.
For more information and to sign up as a participant or volunteer, visit www.relayforlife.org/pleasantonca/