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NORMAL — Smiles, hugs and sunshine overcame tears, perspiration and rain on Friday at the Normal Community West High School track.

Even when the sunshine had to come from within.

The event was the 19th annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life of McLean County, the largest Relay For Life in Illinois and among Central Illinois’ bigger fundraising events.

While high winds and rain relocated the 24-hour event — which began at noon Friday — inside the school for a couple of hours Friday, by 5 p.m., the weather had improved and participants were back walking and running on the track or visiting in their decorated campsites.

“We are back on track,” said Relay spokeswoman Dede Verplaetse. The cancer survivors’ dinner moved inside the school but all other events were back outdoors as planned.

About 2,200 cancer survivors and family members were expected to participate in the relay by its wrap-up at noon Saturday.

“This is a true celebration,” said Toni Gruenwald, 48, of Normal, a kidney cancer survivor and member of Team Village. “I’ve gone 17 months without surgery for the first time in four years.”

Cindy Fight, 47, of Bloomington, a breast cancer survivor and member of the “Stop the War in My Rack!” team, was celebrating ending chemotherapy on May 10.

“This is a celebration: Woo-hoo!” said teammate and fellow breast cancer survivor Sherry Detloff, 59, of Bloomington, as she held up a sign with the team name.

And Joe Neitz, 57, of Bloomington, a squamous cell head and neck cancer survivor, was celebrating his cure.

“The funds raised by relay made my recovery possible,” said Neitz, a teacher and coach at Holy Trinity Junior High School and a member of its Saintly Striders relay team for years before his diagnosis.

“I owe it to anyone who comes after me,” Neitz said of his continuing participation in relay. “Until there’s a cure, I can’t see not doing it.”

Fight was participating for the first year because she recognized that money raised at relays went toward medicines that benefited her.

Longtime participant Cheryl Mardis of Bloomington remains involved because “I know people who fought cancer and won, I know people who fought cancer and lost and I know people who are still fighting. I want it to stop.”

Gruenwald said her team consists of friends representing five families from Epiphany School in Normal, which explains the Team Village name. “We’re raising 17 kids among us and we always said it takes a village.”

That village supported Gruenwald when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer in 2009 and had five surgeries. Parts of her kidney, pancreas, liver, stomach, lung, diaphragm and intestines were removed and she took experimental chemotherapy that didn’t work.

“Mayo (Clinic) tells me I’m a walking miracle,” she said of her survival. “The cancer is still there but it hasn’t morphed into anything else.”

What keeps her going?

“My village, my faith and my family,” she said, fingering a necklace that read “Faith” on one side and “Peace” on the other.

“She’s my hero,” said her daughter, Catie Gruenwald, 19. “She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever met.”

“This (relay) is a good way to come together, to remember, to pray and to celebrate,” Catie Gruenwald said. “And it’s a lot of fun,” she said, noting that they would be doing dance and karaoke competitions later.

Participants noted that somber moments included the luminaria ceremony to honor survivors and those who died.

“It feels good,” said Shannon Sheehan-Eakle of Bloomington, “to know we’re not alone.”


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