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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - It was a picture perfect evening for the hundreds of relayers and guests to walk the track at Gov. Livingston High School for the annual Relay for Life on Saturday, June 15. While participation was down, the spirit of the event was soaring high to continue the fight to end cancer. The Relay for Life event is a joint effort between Berkeley Heights, Mountainside, New Providence, and Summit.

The top 10 fundraising teams participating were proudly announced for their efforts. Top fundrasing team, Harwood Gang, raised $21,695 and earned the inaugural Shining Star Award in memory of Catherine "Mur" Murray, who passed away on February 25. This newly created award will be given to the highest producer each year at Relay. 

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During the Luminaria Ceremony, event co-chair Patti Broccoli honored her childhood friend Mur. She talked of their fabulous upbringing on a cul-de-sac in a time without cell phones or video games. -- "What we shared was a friendship and ties that bound us for life," said Broccoli.

"The end of the story began about 14 years ago when our beloved friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was already beyond the breast when they found it so the diagnosis wasn’t great from the onset," she said. "But doctors and cancer didn’t know who they were dealing with. Mur was not having this! She certainly wasn’t going to accept this without a fierce battle. She had a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and in relatively short order she was in remission.  That’s when The Harwood Gang was created. -- This would be our way of fighting the fight alongside of Mur. We could raise money to support research and help the American Cancer Society continue the battle. We came together as a team to support one of our own and at the same time, work toward creating a world without cancer for our families as well."

In 2018, the cancer came back -- she fought long and hard. Mur tried immunotherapy with some short periods of success, she underwent chemotherapy again, lost her hair all over again, was forced to quit her job and through it all, she continued the fight, Broccoli said.  "She took regular walks with her cousin Mary who came to take care of her as her health continued to decline. She continued to go to choir practice and attended a Little Flower class reunion and made it a point to continue to participate in life - all the time the vile disease was moving throughout her body.  She had pain and nausea then began collecting fluid in her abdomen and lungs. By early February of this year, Mur began talking about hospice care.  She knew she was failing and although she wanted to fight, she new that her body was tired and not able to go on. On Feb 25, Mur took her final journey home."

Broccoli encouraged the participants to live like her friend Mur. "Celebrate the small stuff, enjoy every sunrise and sunset, laugh at nonsense, participate in every game you can.  Embrace your family and friends and keep them close. Allow your inner star to shine."

Every year The Harwood Gang executes fundraisers that are both fun and profitable. "We estimate that over the past 11 years, The Harwood Gang has raised over $100,000," said Broccoli.

Other top teams recognized: Pearly Girls raising $10,887; NP Peer Leaders Blue Team 2019 raising $8,219; NP Peer Leaders Purple Team 2019 raising $7,321; The Warriors raising $5,644; The Believers raising $3,758; Lightning Bolts raising $2,908; Team Spencer raising $2,580; Believe raising $2,382 and Walking Warriors raising $2,172.  The top individuals were also recognized for their success: Brianna Cagan raised $5,028; Janice Berliner, $2,615; Spencer Jacovini, $2336; Isabel Jacovini, $2,074; Mark Pergola, $1,932; Kiera Blake, $1,755; Sara Hunter, $1,501; Komal Naik, $1,315; and Hayden LaRocque Green raised $1,247.

The planning of this Relay for Life event is nearly a yearlong process for the event chairs Patti Broccoli, Sue Kelly, and Margaret Illis and several dozen committee members -- as well as the hundreds of fundraising participants. The planning committee also includes an ambitious group of high school volunteers that were recognized for their efforts: Brianna Cagan, Marissa Cagan, David Peritore and Olivia Torsiello.  

The Relay event began with a Survivors Luncheon held in the Gov. Livingston cafeteria. The luncheon was chaired by Maureen Pergola and the survivors were entertained by the talented Hickory Tree Chorus. 

Once the survivors arrived to the track and took their seats along with the crowd that filled the bleachers, event co-chair Margaret Illis welcomed everybody to the opening ceremony and thanked them for joining the American Cancer Society to create a world free from pain and suffering from cancer.

Berkeley Heights Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts from troop 68 presented the colors and led the Pledge of Allegiance. Mia Montero sang the national anthem and later during the Luminaria Ceremony she sang "The Climb." Additional entertainment was provided by the New Jersey Youth Choir and Bud Ayres and The Relay Jazz All-Stars that include Mark Weber on keyboard, Ryan Hernandez on guitar, and Sam Ayres on trumpet, as well as a DJ played while the relayers walked the track.

Co-chair Sue Kelly told the crowd, "together, we can make the greatest impact to save lives. That is why we are here today. When we raise money for Relay for Life, we help the American Cancer Society touch the lives of so many -- those currently battling cancer, those who may face diagnosis in the future and those who may avoid diagnosis all together. --- We want to make a difference in the fight against cancer. And you are doing that and thank you for coming here tonight."

Leadership from all four towns was in attendance including Berkeley Heights Mayor Angie Devanney, Mayor Paul Mirabelli of Mountainside, New Providence Councilwoman Nadine Geoffroy, and Summit Common Council member Greg Vartan --each provided welcoming remarks as well as their message for the evening. 

"I ask tonight that we come together, all four communities, to do all we can to fight back," said Mayor Devanney.

"We are here to raise the spirits of cancer survivors and to raise money -- we can’t let cancer defeat you. Don’t give up -- someday we will have a cure for it," said Mayor Mirabelli.

Vartan thanked everyone for their work and encouraged the crowd to continue their work. "You will continue tomorrow until cancer doesn’t affect another person, family or community ever again," he said.

Councilwoman Geoffroy said, "Everybody comes with different reasons as to why they relay. Some relay for family members, some relay for friends, some relay so others may not have to go through this again. Either case, each and every one of you is a pivotal factor and the reason why one day we will cure this disease." 

Rabbi Julie Schwarzwald addressed the crowd on behalf of the survivors and spoke of her journey with breast cancer. She said that while her sons have participated in relay in the past, this was her first ever relay. She said she was honored to be at relay.

"I am now a member of the most inclusive club you never want to be a part of," she said. "This club admits people regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status or religion. We are each part of the same club but with completely individual experiences and journeys. Yet, each of us has been changed forever in ways big and small."

"[We] Indore the testing, the results, the conversations and the treatment plan. We need to get through the treatments. We have to indore whatever is medically indicated because people are counting on us to be parents, siblings, friends, colleagues," she said. "It was not something we chose for ourselves. We have endured to be here today."

She said that when she lost her hair, she was treated differently. "I didn’t feel sick. My view from inside my head had not changed. -- I couldn’t control how others perceived me. I couldn’t control the effects the treatments had on me. I needed to find the ability to accept what I could and couldn’t do each day. I needed to forgive myself while forgiving others for making assumptions about my condition and about how I wanted to be treated. -- I know that what we see on the outside doesn’t always reflect what is happening on the inside." 

"We are here today so our children and our children’s children won’t have to endure what we have endured," said Schwartzwald.

The survivors filed onto the track under the purple and white balloon arch to kick off this year's relay. After their lap, the caregivers joined and then the hundreds of participants. The relayers walked continuously until midnight and the closing ceremony when the relayers were reminded of the improved statistics of this fight against cancer. Participants are reminded to commit to take action and help lead the fight for a world free from cancer. "It's a time to celebrate what we've accomplished together and a time to unify for the work that needs to be done moving forward." 

"[The] Relay for Life movement unites us to put aside our differences, our disagreements and our rivalries so we may shout with one voice that we will win the fight against the disease that takes too much from too many," said Doreen Peritore. "We will give hope to those in despair and we will never let go of those who need a hand to hold. We will never forget those lost to cancer and we will never give up, never stop and never quit until cancer is no longer a threat to the lives of who we love and care for deeply."

It is not too late to contribute to Relay for Life of Berkeley Heights, donations will be accepted through the summer by visiting the event website www.relay.ascevents.org.

Enjoy the photo gallery that captures the event in its entirety. Photos by Natalie Chin and Bobbie Peer.