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Fighting Back Against Cancer — and Having Fun

Vienna Relay for Life on June 3 and 4 will try to match last year's success.

Last year's Vienna Relay for Life was a record-breaking event, and organizers are expecting this year's relay to be a repeat performance.

Relay for Life is the signature fund-raising event for the American Cancer Society, which asks that first-year relays raise a minimum of $20,000. Last year, Vienna's first-ever relay raised over $450,000, making it the highest-earning rookie event in the history of the American Cancer Society.

The previous record-holder, said Nikkii Greenleaf, the Vienna relay's staff partner at the Cancer Society, was a relay in Pennsylvania that raised nearly $300,000.

"A first-year relay usually raises, depending on the size of the community, $35,000 to $150,000," said Greenleaf. "So this was very, very extraordinary." Most relays, she said, earn about $120,000.

"Basically, it was a few people in the community who really wanted to see this happen," said Greenleaf. "If you've heard of this event, then you've heard of Stacy Capra," she added.

In 2001, Capra approached the American Cancer Society, asking why there was no relay in Vienna. She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her father had been diagnosed with a brain tumor the year before.

"I guess I kind of felt the need to fight back that day," said Capra. She immediately offered to chair such an event but was talked into first participating in a relay or two while she finished her treatment. In the meantime, the former teacher began making the rounds of local schools, talking about the importance of self-examination and recruiting teams for other relays in the area.

After her father succumbed to cancer, Capra said, she had set a goal for herself to raise $100,000 for cancer research. She called this the Thomas Promise in honor of her father, James Lloyd Thomas.

SHE HAS KEPT TRACK of the money raised by teams she recruited and says she reached her goal in 2003. In 2004, she began her work as co-chair of last year's Vienna relay. If this year's relay earns $350,000, the Thomas Promise will break $1 million, she said.

Capra's friend, Debbie Bacigalupo, who has co-chaired the event both years, does not think the goal is unlikely. "Our first relay out of the gate, we set the bar kind of high, so we're trying to get back there," said Bacigalupo, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor. As of Friday, she said, over $220,000 had been raised, and she recalled about $100,000 rolling in on the day of the event last year. About 1,000 participants were registered by Friday, and Bacigalupo said organizers are expecting about 1,500 total participants, roughly the number that participated last year.

She, too, credited Capra with Vienna's fund-raising success. "When she said, 'I'm going to do this,' we all just rallied around her and said, 'We'll do it with you,'" she said. She noted that the community had also been eager to participate. "Vienna has really just taken this on," she said, "volunteering and turning out in large numbers."

Capra said her biggest point of pride was how little of the money — about on half of 1 percent — was spent on the event itself. "It was phenomenal," she said. "Ninety-nine point five percent of the money went where it needed to go."

This year, she is not co-chairing the event but is back on the school circuit recruiting teams, from elementary through high school. Students, she said, do not just show up for the all-night party. Their energy and commitment, she said, are "very genuine." She noted that when she asks students what their favorite relay event was, "every time, at any school I go to, they say the candle ceremony," referring to the lighting of "luminaria" — candles in paper bags — around the track, with each light either honoring a survivor or commemorating one who succumbed to cancer. This is the central event of any relay, Capra said, adding that she had first expected the lip sync contest to be the student favorite.

Over half of last year's participants were students.

AT 2 P.M. SATURDAY, following an opening ceremony, the teams will begin walking around the Oakton High School track. Each team will have at least one member walking until 7 a.m. the following day, "because cancer never sleeps," as the relay motto goes. At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, a dinner will be held for cancer survivors, followed by a survivors‚ victory lap at 7, in which all survivors are asked to introduce themselves and then walk a lap together. The luminaria ceremony will be held at 9, after which, any of the public not participating in the event is no longer allowed on the premises for security reasons.

The field at the track's center will be covered in tents for team members who are not walking the track, not that rest is particularly encouraged — throughout the 19-hour event, which begins gearing up at noon, entertainment will be in no short supply. This includes but is not limited to a children's tent, a dunking tank, a late-night lip sync contest, a midnight pizza party, an all-night coffee house, an Elvis impersonator, line dancing (lessons and performances), a pie-eating contest, a cake decorating contest, various music acts, movies, Bingo and a Mr. Relay contest in which male participants compete, dressed in female finery. Entertainers are performing free of charge.

There will also be a raffle drawing for a free Dodge Dakota or Charger — winner's choice — donated by Tysons Dodge Jeep, the owner of which is a cancer survivor.

The Discovery Health Channel will be present, filming for a documentary called "Relay for Life: Giant Steps." Bacigalupo said, "We really got a lot of attention after last year's relay." The program is scheduled to air June 27 at 9 p.m.

The last day to register to participate in the relay is Thursday, June 1, as this allows only two days for fund-raising. All funds are raised up front, most often via events such as bake sales, car washes and restaurant nights — in which a portion of the evening's proceeds go to the American Cancer Society — as well as contributions from friends and family, said Bacigalupo.

The relay itself, said Capra, "is like a celebration to celebrate your fund-raising success."

A $100 per person minimum is the recommended donation.

However, cancer survivors are welcome to join at any time, as are volunteers to help with activities, the medical tent, parking and preparing the luminaria. Registration for any sort of participation is available at www.viennarelay.org, as are raffle tickets for the prize vehicle ($5) and luminaria to honor cancer victims and survivors ($10). All of these are also available on-site the day of the relay.

The event will be held rain or shine.

Capra said the event is worth her time and effort, and that of so many others, because she believes in the ability of the Cancer Society to create new treatments for cancer and, eventually, a cure. "We're growing in numbers," she said of cancer survivors, "and that's a good thing. And I fully believe that's because of the American Cancer Society."