The Farmington Valley Relay for Life held a kickoff celebration, on Feb. 11, at Farmington Gardens.
The 2017 relay raised $495,000 for the American Cancer Society (ACS), which funds research grants and other programs.
Once again, the Relay for Life will be held May 19-20 at the lush Farmington Polo Grounds. The relay ranks 12th nationally in the amount of money raised by teams. Connecticut cancer research facilities, including Griffin Hospital, the University of Connecticut, and Yale University, received more than $12.5 million in research grants.
For 24 hours, teams of walkers circle the polo grounds, a celebration of survivors and a way to honor those who succumbed to the disease. The relay continues to accept team and sponsorship applications.
While some team's camp out and walk throughout the night, walkers are not obligated to stay the entire 24 hours.
Linda Kime, an event tri-chair, said the kickoff is a reminder that the relay is not far away, a little more than three months to assemble teams and sign up donors and sponsors. Though a dreary and soggy winter day, the garden's ballroom filled with past and new participants.
She said the 2018 goal is to raise $500,000. The Farmington relay attracts large contingents of student teams. Local churches, companies, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and community groups also assemble teams.
"We would like more corporate teams. The students do such a good job contacting all the businesses in the valley, we've raised almost $80,000 of our $495,000," Kime said.
She thanked the businesses for their contributions, often without asking for publicity.
Last year's relay attracted around 2,000 participants. The relay has the feel of a positive, music-filled festival.
Kime said cancer does not discriminate, affecting all ages and walks of life. She said one out two men and one out of two women will be touched by cancer.
The kickoff recognized the teams, individuals, and sponsors who donated money to last year's relay. Sponsorships start at $150 and climb to $10,000 or more for a Presenting Sponsor.
The event also praised research being conducted by Dr. Xiuling Lu's lab, at the University of Connecticut. Researchers in the lab are experimenting on mice to decrease tumors associated with ovarian cancer.
Nanoparticles are sent directly to the tumor site without sacrificing healthy tissue. A relay team was invited to the lab for a day. As of Feb. 1, Connecticut labs received 29 ACS research grants.
"It makes you feel good we're doing the research right here in Connecticut," Kime said.
The upcoming relay will be Kime's 15th. She made it until 1 a.m. last year. She walks with Memorial United Methodist Church, of Avon.
Her father, Calvin Mitchell, who resides in North Carolina, is a two-time cancer survivor. The 84-year-old overcame melanoma and prostate cancer.
For many walkers, they walk to honor the memory of a loved one lost to cancer. Kay Hunter formed Charlotte's Caribbean Soul, named after her daughter, Charlotte Dahle, a married mother of two when she died at 37 years old from a rare form of brain cancer in 2004.
A top relay team, Charlotte's Caribbean Soul raised more than $11,000 in 2017, a mark Hunter hopes to surpass.
"It's always good to see the crowd of people that come out and support us," Hunter said.
Hunter finds the luminaria, a candlelight vigil for those touched by cancer, moving.
"My thoughts are with remembering my daughter. I hope every year they'll come up with a cure, if not, a vaccine or something to stop it," she said.
She recently lost her brother-in-law, Robert Scanlon, to cancer, a former Farmington Relay for Life participant. He was 76 years old.
"He fought it hard for five years and it kept recurring," Hunter said.
Relatives from upstate New York come annually to Farmington for the relay, which included Scanlon when he was feeling well.
"This is why we do it. We don't want it to happen to anybody else," she said.
She hopes a future vaccine or immunotherapy will at least keep cancer at bay. Researchers at Stanford University recently released positive findings using a vaccine to reduce tumors in mice.
Avery, 10, a student at West Woods Elementary School, formed a team in 2017 and raised close to $5,000. She walked in honor of her grandfather, Thomas May, who was fighting prostate cancer.
Her mother, Amanda Sirica, said her father passed the morning of the relay. She arranged for a flight to be with her family in Atlanta. Avery was committed to completing the relay, a way to remember her beloved grandfather.
Avery completed 75 laps, a lap for every year of her grandfather's life. May was diagnosed with Stage III prostate cancer.
"She wanted to help find a cure for her pop-pop," Sirica said of her daughter. "He was fighting very hard for a long time and he reached the end of his brave battle the morning of relay day."
The irony of her father's passing on relay day did not go unnoticed. She offered Avery a chance to stay home and be "sad together." Avery unflinchingly headed for the relay, determined to complete her laps and "finish what she started."
Avery was joined at the relay by her teammates and their parents.
"I've never been prouder. I continue to be proud of her," she said, "and the work she does," which included a speech in front of hundreds at the kickoff.
Sirica added that Relay for Life educated Avery about what cancer was and the research being performed.
"It's a big word to teach your child about. With the help of Relay for Life, they were able to educate the both of us and make what we were going through as a family a little easier," she said.
The 2018 relay will be "bittersweet" for the Siricas, as the anniversary of Thomas' passing nears.
"We're excited to walk in his memory this year," she said.