BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Although the forecast moved this year's Relay for Life inside for the second consecutive year, the message was heard loud and clear throughout the night through the halls and gymnasiums at Gov. Livingston High School. Relay for Life of Berkeley Heights joins communities around the country and world to finish the fight to create a world without cancer. 

Relay for Life is a life changing journey to celebrate survivors who have battled cancer, remember the people we have lost and renew the commitment to fight back against the disease and help to end it once and for all.

The Relay for Life event takes months in planning and through the leadership team led by co-chairs Patti Broccoli and Margaret Illis, committee leaders and volunteers -- the night was a huge success raising over $130,000. Everyone has a story -- survivors, caregivers and stories of loss were shared.  

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Out of the 53 teams registered, top teams include: Harwood Gang $15,390; Pearly Girls $14,145; NP Peer Leaders Green Team $8,165; NP Peer Leaders Blue Team $7,881; Just Cure It $6,008; NP Peer Leaders Orange Team $5,690; The Warriors $5,427 and Team Spencer $4,892, NA Minutemen $4,636 and Just Cure It $4,336. The fundraising efforts continued throughout the evening with concessions, games, bake sales, 50/50 raffle and a basket raffle.

"When we raise money for Relay for Life, we help the American Cancer Society touch the lives of so many," said Sue Kelly, an event volunteer leader. "We are here to celebrate all of those who have battled cancer."

During the opening ceremony, Boy Scouts from Troops 368 and 68 presented the colors and led the Pledge of Allegiance and Brianna Cagan sang the national anthem. 

Congressman Leonard Lance, Mayor Bob Woodruff, Mayor Al Morgan, Mayor Paul Mirabelli and Mayor Nora Radest were in attendance and encouraged the young participants to keep up the good work. Congressman Lance was recognized for being one of two law makers who received the Congressional Champion Award by One Voice Against Cancer.

"I am pleased to participate tonight, I want to commend all of those that have made this night possible," said Lance, who recognized how this was a somber occasion for some in the gymnasium. "We lost our mother to cancer when we were 12," he said. "We are making progress every day. Survival rates is on the rise." He said that funding is one of the major goals in congress. "I want you to know that we support you in Washington -- this is non-partisan. Together we will win the fight against cancer based upon the courage of those I see in front of me. The American people are united together in this fight -- and I am confident that we will fight through to victory."

Event Co-chair Patti Broccoli told the room the story behind why she formed a relay team 14 years ago and how everyone on her team has  been touched by cancer. The Harwood Gang team formed when their friend Cathy Murray was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Cancer was all too familiar to us, but Cathy's diagnosis was different -- this was our friend," said Broccoli. "Forming a team for Relay for Life somehow seemed appropriate. Not only were we helping our friend -- show her our support and dedication -- we were helping everyone struck by the disease." 

Fast forward 14 years, Broccoli said that she and her teammate Nancy have fought their own battle with cancer. "We work together to continue the fight. New family members have been diagnosed, some have thrived and some have passed. More and more friends hear the dreaded words 'you have cancer' everyday. And through it all, Cathy continues to battle. She continues to exhibit strength and determination. She lives her best life everyday," said Broccoli. The Harwood Gang is known for their annual town-wide Bingo fundraiser and has collectively raised over $70,000 since their formation. "I am really proud to be the captain of this team." 

She thanked every team captain, participant and her committee leaders and attendees. "Thank you for being part of Relay for Life and thank you for helping us to make a difference."

Cathy Murray said that she does not do this on her own. "Every person on my team has lifted me up," said Mur. She said that since her diagnosis 14 years ago there are new drugs that don't make her sick when she gets her treatments. "There are new cancer drugs out there that help in the fight and that's all through research. And helping through the funding and money that you guys help to raise. Thank you for everyone here." She read a meaningful poem that carries the message, 'I have cancer, but cancer does not have me."

The crowd enjoyed performances by Doreen Peritore, Hickory Tree Chorus and Olivia Hadad got the room engaged in her singing of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."

Committee leader Doreen Peritore reminded the room of the reason why they relay. "Let us not forget why we are here -- our survivors, and caregivers as well as those who are no longer here with us are the reasons we continue to come together through the Relay for Life movement. Each and everyone of you are here because you feel compelled to make a difference and together we can."

She introduced Jan Jacovini who shared her caregiver story.

Jacovini said, "Cancer was never in our plans. both my sister and my son [Spencer, who was diagnosed in 2011 at age 8] had few symptoms or warnings. They both had long arduous battles," she said. "They both had multiple surgeries requiring long hospital stays, treatments and set backs. Their lives and our lives were changed forever. They are braver than brave and they inspire me and I'm sure many others daily." 

She described the role of a caregiver as someone to drive to doctors appointments, waiting long hours in the hospital, car pooling, cooking meals, babysitting, learning to give injections, feeding tubes, researching medical terms and procedures and she said that doesn't begin to cover it.

"Caregiving involves kindness, patience and love," said Jacovini. "My family is like so many families here today -- it has been touched personally by cancer. Not just once but multiple times."

"Tonight many of you are here as caregivers, or perhaps may someday become one. No one signs up to be a caregiver, we just do what it takes to support our loved ones through their and our journey. I know many of us hope for a cure so we can stop doing these walks. But until that day, we continue to draw strength from one another and vow to never give up. To those battling, to those who have concurred, to those we have lost -- we owe it to them to do this."

The first lap around the "indoor track" was led by the survivors, then caregivers joined in and then the participants. They walked continuous laps throughout the evening. 

At 9 p.m. the lights dimmed and the Luminaria Ceremony began. The sound of the bagpipes was heard from a distance playing Amazing Grace. Featured speaker Julie Spoerl and her daughter Paige spoke of their husband/father and his long 10 year battle with brain cancer.   

Julie Spoerl said she was honored to be with a great group of young adults who created a relay team in honor of her husband Scott. He was diagnosed in 2006 and passed away in 2016. "I can tell you that I lost him slowly, piece by piece. --- Scott was one of the good guys," she said. -- Julie told their story of falling in love in college, dating for six years and getting engaged at the Rockefeller Tree, having their two children to vacationing in Nantucket. "I had no doubt I wanted him to be mine forever. I am here 44 years old and a widow."  -- "I miss him with every ounce of my soul. But Scott wouldn't want me to give up. He would want us to keep fighting. We stand here with you today -- we come together to collectively have this train continue the fight and find a cure for all cancers and to know we are not alone."

The crowd took to the "track" for their silent lap around the track before they rallied during the Fight Back ceremony demonstrating hope in research advancements for a cure for all types of cancer.  

For more information about Relay for Life, visit relayforlife.org/berkeleyheights.

Photo/Video credits Bobbie Peer - TAPinto Berkeley Heights.