NORMAL — When Jessica Altshue performed with the Normal Community High School color guard at last year's American Cancer Society Relay For Life of McLean County, her grandmother, Martha Brown, had just been diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer.

"It was the first time we had ever been to relay," said Gwen Altshue, Jessica's mother and Brown's daughter.

"I thought, 'This is something I can get behind,'" she said. "I told my mom, 'Next year, you'll be out there with us.'"

So there was Gwen, Jessica, 16, and other family members and friends — including Briana Turcotte, 17, of Bloomington — walking around the NCHS track Friday afternoon and evening.

They weren't alone. About 1,200 people are expected to participate in the 22nd annual Relay For Life, which began at the NCHS track at 4 p.m. Friday and concludes at 10 a.m. Saturday. Some walkers camp overnight.

The purpose is to have fun and raise money for cancer research and programs while honoring people who have lost their lives to cancer, survivors, caregivers and family members.

Martha Brown was not among the 1,200. Brown, of Bloomington, died Aug. 10 at age 69.

"She had kidney, bladder, lung and bone cancer when she died," Gwen Altshue said.

"It's bittersweet that we're here and she's not," she said. "But, in a way, she is (here). She's always with us."

The Altshues named their team Martie's Butterflies. They wore purple T-shirts and decorated their tent with purple butterfly shapes.

"Purple butterflies were her favorite thing," Gwen said.

"She was a hard worker who would give you the shirt off her back whether she had another one or not. She was family oriented and gave to every charity known to man," Gwen said.

"I know that my grandma is here, even though physically she isn't," Jessica said.

"Cancer ruins everything," Turcotte said. "A lot of lives are lost. It's important to be here to help to find a way to end it."

Among people walking around the track carrying a decorated pool noodle were Sharon Wooten, 51, and Suzanne Roberts, 49, both of Normal. Relay teams were asked to carry a decorated pool noodle as a team baton.

Wooten and Roberts are on Generations, a team that Wooten organized nine years ago in memory of her sister who died of colon cancer at age 35.

"We named the team Generations because we are forward thinking for future generations," Wooten said. "Someday, we'll have a world that is cancer free."

Roberts continues to participate after nine years "Because we haven't found a cure...We're not there yet, so we keep fighting."

"But they are making strides with research," Wooten said.

Roberts decorated the pool noodle with different colors representing different cancers. Team members wrote on the noodle why they are walking and the noodle had lights.

"We want to shine a light on cancer awareness," Roberts said.

Leading a team of high school and junior high walkers was Jolie Pressburger, 13, of Normal. Each wore a pink shirt. On the front of each shirt, Jolie and team members wrote in fabric marker: "I walk all night because cancer never sleeps."

Jolie participated in the high school relay last year in memory of an aunt, Melissa McClure, who died of ovarian cancer in December 2014.

She decided to captain a team at the countywide relay this weekend because she "wanted to have the whole experience."

"It's cool to see all the people cancer has affected in McLean County," said a Pressburger teammate, Britta Warren, 13, of Normal. "This is something everyone is united with."

Dede Verplaetse, among the relay organizers, conceded that the number of participants was down Friday.

"It's the 22nd year," she said. "Some teams that have been doing this for years are taking a break. But we have new ones just getting started. We're getting another generation excited."

As of 6 p.m. Friday, $237,000 had been raised toward relay's $370,000 goal.

"People can still come out," Verplaetse said. "We'll be here until 10 a.m. Saturday.

"We'll keep relay going until we don't need it anymore."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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Health Editor

Health Editor for The Pantagraph.

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