They gathered in the sunlight, walked by candlelight, and prayed in the dark.
The 2011 McDuffie County Relay for Life filled the Thomson High School track and infield with people who have seen cancer from many perspectives.
Hundreds of cancer survivors walked the opening lap Friday evening. Their purple T-shirts signified their victory or their ongoing fight against every form of cancer. Some carried a banner. Some took careful steps as they leaned on canes or the shoulders of loved ones. Some made their statement in wheelchairs or golf carts.
Margaret Beckum, 15, wore a pink hat and a broad smile as she helped carry the banner. The story of Beckum, who received word in January that her cancer is in remission, has been a highlight of the Relay for Life groundswell in the community.
After Beckum had walked her lap and finished her TV interview, she walked the infield with her parents, Bill and Jenifer Beckum.
Jenifer was asked how her life has changed since Margaret's remission news. "I'm still busy being her mother," Jenifer said. "That's all I want to be."
Walkers from almost 50 teams wore official white Relay T-shirts or whatever matched the overcast weather as they circled the track. Their number included those supporting cancer patients, those honoring or remembering family and neighbors, medical professionals and those for whom the cause has not yet become so personal. The teams represented co-workers, schools, churches, clubs and other coalitions.
For a modest charge or a donation, the crowd enjoyed hot dogs, hamburgers, fish dinners, pastry and more.
For a token fee, the Thomson Junior Women's Club would arrange a luminaria in tribute to a loved one. Sand ballast would hold the white paper bags to the edge of the track, and a candle inside each bag would be lit at sunset, lighting the name of the recipient. Hundreds of bags circled the track by nightfall.
For a mere $5 contribution to the Dearing Elementary School booth, recipients of the golden toilet seat could draft another recipient of the dubious honor.
For a donation, families could soar above the field in a hot-air balloon owned by Touchstone Energy Cooperative and arranged locally by Jefferson Energy.
All the money raised by dozens of booths would be combined with pledges made to hundreds of walkers.
Bob Knox Jr., a co-chairman of the event, estimated that teams had taken about $100,000 in pledges before Friday evening. Knox said the evening of the event usually adds about $25,000 to the total. More money will arrive in the days after the festival, Knox said.
This year's goal is $185,000.
Young dancers, musicians and karate students entertained from the main stage until nightfall.
Then a more somber note prevailed. Michele Ray of Heart's Desire Ministries offered gospel music, including Healer by Kari Jobe. The notes of Amazing Grace soared from Mark Cheek's bagpipe.
Knox called the walkers and crowd forward for what he called the central moment of the Relay, the tribute to cancer patients.
The Rev. John Barnes of First United Methodist Church prefaced his prayer with his own family's cancer story. Barnes' mother, Frances, was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer 16 years ago. Barnes remembered reading about treatment and survival rates. "What went through my mind was 'My mom's not gonna know my son,'" Barnes said of son Jack, who is now a junior in high school.
Barnes said he drew on his faith, and the assurance that the family would be reunited in God's time. "It's as though God spoke to me," Barnes said.
Barnes spoke of "a very good doctor" -- Dr. Benedict Benigno -- and Northside Hospital in Atlanta, and the chemotherapy, and his mother's nausea from the treatment. "But she lived," Barnes said. "And she has been 16 years a survivor of cancer. A survivor. Amen."
"I'd like for you to do one last thing if you would," Knox said as he dismissed the crowd. "I'd like you to remain very silent. I encourage you to go back to wherever you were, and walk around that track at least one more time and look at those bags with those names, those luminaries that show names of people who lost the battle and people who are still fighting the battle."
"There is always hope," Knox said.
Raymond Swann stood in the second row of the crowd watching the program. The Thomson businessman wore gauze to protect the reconstructive surgery he needed last week, after a cancerous growth was removed from his nose. Swann said he learned there are three types of skin cancer. "Mine was melanoma. That's the bad boy," he said.
Swann said doctors told him the surgery removed the entire cancer. He said he was relieved, "other than that they surgerized this beautiful face."
"I've been coming to this thing since I guess they had first started it," Swann said. "It has a little different meaning to me now."
The weather that had blessed the festival lasted through the karaoke and through midnight, but fiercer weather forced the crowd from the track about 3 a.m.
The McDuffie County Relay for Life has raised almost $2 million for American Cancer Society needs since 1998. It is one of the most successful per-capita Relays in the country.
Mark Cheek performs Amazing Grace.