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Relay for Life celebrates, remembers and fights back
Henry Rowe said he's proud of his wife Georgia, who raised more than $700 this year for the Relay for Life cause. If you've been seeing purple ribbons around town lately, it's simply supporters of Hall County's Relay for Life showing their true colors. The purple ribbons were available for a minimum $5 donation. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

You don't have to be a college student to pull an all-nighter.

In fact, thousands of Hall County residents of all ages will be staying up all night on Friday to celebrate and remember loved ones who are battling cancer.

Hall County's annual Relay for Life starts at 7 p.m. Friday at Flowery Branch High School's track, and begins with a ceremonial lap walked only by cancer survivors. Following the lap, the participants release balloons.

"It's just one of the most emotional times you've ever seen," said co-chairman Ron Combs, adding that the opening ceremonies continue at 10 p.m. when luminaries are lit, all the lights in the stadium are turned off and there is soft music playing.

"In a large part you're remembering those who've lost their fight," he said of that portion of the evening. "Other than that, its a lot of fun and games."

Gail Schneider, co-chairwoman with Combs of this year's Relay, said the theme of the event this year is "Celebrate. Remember. Fight back." These are also three elements she carries with her personally, as her sister died recently from ovarian cancer. In fact, Schneider has seen multiple deaths in her family from cancer, and so not only is she remembering those who have lost their battle, but she is ready to fight on for them.

"We celebrate our successes, and one of the biggest things we need to celebrate is that cancer deaths have decreased for the first time ever for the last three years in a row," she said. "And remember, we remember the people who have had cancer and have beat it, and we remember the people who are fighting cancer now, and we remember people we have lost to cancer.

But fighting back, she said, is the most important part. And part of that is a study called CPS-3, which will be taking place at Hall County's Relay for Life.

She said people without cancer are invited to give a sample of their blood, and if they do develop cancer in the future, they can study the sample to help determine a cure.

"This is something new that's happening this year and it's a good way to fight back," Schneider said. "So, the fighting back is critical. I've told everybody, I don't want my children, grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, I don't want them to ever hear the words, ‘You've got cancer.' And this is a way we can help make that happen."

Combs said food and entertainment also help keep the event going throughout the night and until 7 the following morning. At midnight the men gather for a beauty pageant, complete with hairy legs and strapless gowns. And a gourmet chef will be adding to his repertoire of all-you-can-eat omelettes at 3 a.m., with Philadelphia cheese steaks made from meat that's been flown in from the Pennsylvania town.

"We say we don't take a break because cancer doesn't' either," Combs said.