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'Cancer touches us all, so we all are here'

Warm weather drew more than 1,000 participants and 64 teams to this year's Relay for Life of Grand Forks, organizers said Friday as the all-night event began.

Relay for Life
Darla Salberg and her grandson, Steven Salberg, 2, lights a luminary during the American Cancer Society Relay for Life on Friday evening at University Park. Luminaries lined the walkways throughout the park. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Warm weather drew more than 1,000 participants and 64 teams to this year's Relay for Life of Grand Forks, organizers said Friday as the all-night event began.

University Park was crowded Friday evening, and event co-chairwoman Tracy Zawistowski guessed about 1,500 people were there besides team members to take in kid-friendly events, food and a night of raising money for the American Cancer Society while showing support for local cancer survivors.

"It's been amazing," she said. "We've got a great turnout."

Zawistowski said the pleasant evening weather "plays a big part" in that turnout -- including more than 250 cancer survivors at the park, a record for the Grand Forks event.

The 2009 Relay for Life didn't catch the


same lucky break with weather.

"We could see our breath that night," she said. "I think it got down to 32. It's a little windy tonight, but we'll take it."

'Kicking leukemia's butt'

Mayor Mike Brown spoke at the opening ceremony, telling the crowd "remembering is why we are here." That includes remembering those who faced struggles during their treatment and the friends and relatives who have been lost to cancer.

But it's also about "remembering that we are not alone," he said. It's a personal issue for Brown, he said, because his mother died at age 44 from breast cancer.

"Cancer touches us all, so we all are here," he said. And Brown said events like this will help reach an important goal -- the day when there is a cure for cancer and an end to the struggles the disease causes.

"We will continue this battle until that day," he said.

This year's honorary chairwoman, Brittany Dvorak, 15, explained to participants that she "lived and breathed basketball" until one day when she didn't feel quite right during her team's championship game.


Doctors soon found a grapefruit-sized tumor and diagnosed Dvorak with leukemia in October 2008. She said during the past 20 months, battling the disease has meant she's had to spend 114 nights away from home at hospitals or treatment centers while also being subjected to 17 spinal taps, 22 blood transfusions and the need to take "hundreds if not thousands of pills."

A reaction to chemotherapy caused Dvorak to wake up 98 percent paralyzed last Father's Day, and now, she's going through therapy to fully recover from that.

"I had to learn how to do everything all over again," she said.

Missing out on sports and not being able to spend time with friends is "really tough," but she now has a "sidekick" and said her team is going to win the battle. Her cousin, Jordan Dvorak, was diagnosed with the same kind of leukemia last year.

"Jordan and I are kicking leukemia's butt," she said, prompting a sea of cheers from the crowd.

'A celebration'

Rachel Loehr said she joined Dvorak's relay team, Team Brittany, because she's been inspired by how Dvorak has used her own battle with cancer to raise money and awareness about the illness.

"She's been really good," Loehr said. "I think that's really huge, and I'm really proud of her."


Team Brittany had raised more than $3,000 by Wednesday, and Dvorak was the top individual fundraiser going into this year's Relay for Life.

Angela Johnson, accounting chairwoman for the event, said the 64 participating teams had raised about $118,000 as of Wednesday. And she expected teams to take in plenty more donations during the night.

That puts this year's event on track to matching the $146,000 total amount raised last year for the American Cancer Society, which uses the money for cancer research and education.

Johnson said Lazur Family and Friends raised the most of the 64 teams, starting out Friday's event with about $13,000 of donations.

"The teams have done an amazing job of fundraising all year long," Zawistowski said.

The event might raise awareness and money for cancer research, but she said it's more of a party than a gloomy affair.

"It's a celebration of everyone who has gone through the battle and supporting cancer survivors now," Zawistowski said.

It did get somber about 10 p.m. when people lit more than 8,000 illuminated bags called luminaria, each one with the name of a person who has battled cancer.


"It's about fighting the battle and winning it and remembering," Zawistowski said.

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

Donate to Relay for Life of Grand Forks, www.relayforlife.org/grandforksnd

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