When doctors diagnosed Mary Strauss with breast cancer 10 years ago, the retired bookkeeper was forced to confront a condition that for much of her life went unnamed.
"Growing up, we never talked about cancer," said Strauss, 76, of La Cañada. "It was the big C. You didn't tell people you had the big C, this dreadful, terrible disease. Who tells people about a looming death sentence?"
This weekend she joined more than 1,000 survivors, their supporters and people who lost loved ones to cancer at American Cancer Society Relay for Life events in La Crescenta and Burbank.
For 24 hours beginning with a single lap by survivors, then onto a candlelight vigil to honor those touched by the illness, and ending with the final participant crossing the finish line Sunday, more than 100 teams participated in the annual events at Clark Magnet High School and Johnny Carson Park.
Strauss, after circling the track with others from the foothills, sat down among the 30 teams and 350 participants that were registered by Saturday morning. Many pitched tents to spend the night while others sold everything from pedometers and stopwatches to custom hats and blankets.
"It's hard to explain how good you feel being among everyone here," Strauss said, the back of her purple T-shirt emblazoned with the word "SURVIVOR." "I'm not a kid anymore, but I go to the Y and do Weight Watchers. And this was the best I've felt in a while."
In its 25th year, the relays bring more than 3.5 million people from 5,000 communities across the country together to celebrate those battling cancer, remember those who lost battles, and continue the fight by raising money for the American Cancer Society to increase prevention awareness and help find cures.
It's been 16 years since Jennifer Todd, of Burbank, was diagnosed with breast cancer. A longtime Burbank Unified School District employee, Todd remembers bringing together her children, at that time ages 3, 7 and 12, and allowing them to shave her head. Todd fought back tears as she recalled them referring to her as an ice cream cone.
"When I run into people who were just diagnosed, I can see them going through the same things I did," she said.
Last year, on the 15th anniversary of her diagnosis, Todd and her children got tattoos of large pink ribbons, an international symbol of breast cancer.
"This was their lives," she said. "They grew up with cancer."
Also mingling among the 700 participants and 47 teams at Johnny Carson Park in Burbank was an 8-year-old aspiring doctor who is learning the ropes by taking care of his aunt, as well as a 35-year cancer survivor.
Pat Heydon, who allows herself this one day a year to dwell on events of the past, said the 24-hour experience is "worth its weight in gold."
"You can mourn a little bit with everyone," said Heydon, a regular at the Tuttle Adult Center. "You let it go for another year."
Organizers milled about the two events urging people to quit smoking and keep mammograms and colonoscopies current. Teammates took turns running and walking laps, while others prepared for the nightcap luminaria celebration.
By nightfall, visitors lit candles inside sand-filled bags, each one bearing the name of a person touched by cancer. Some participants walked one silent lap, while others embraced the symbolism after having walked alongside their relative or friend as they battled the disease.
At Clark Magnet, which drew visitors from La Crescenta, La Cañada, Glendale and Los Angeles, Christina Stoic celebrated the lives of loved ones with three luminarias.
She recently lost her husband to cancer. Their son, Christian, a senior at St. Francis High School, said while the ensuing months have been rough, time is slowly healing the wounds.
"We're keeping his memory alive," Christian said.