ANCHORAGE - For many Alaskans, battling cancer will be the biggest fight of their lives.
It is the state's number one killer. Statistics show one in every three men and one in every two women in the state will be diagnosed, and Alaska leads the nation in cancer-related deaths among minorities. Alaska Natives are more likely to get cancer than other groups according to the American Cancer Society, and the odds show why the deadly disease can touch anyone at any time.
That’s why every year, thousands of Alaskans gather at the Relay for Life to raise money and awareness.
“It’s your loved one, it’s your neighbor, it’s your coworker, it's a friend,” said cancer survivor Jake Bender, who learned about the reality of cancer at an early age. "I was 15 or 16.”
Bender was diagnosed with melanoma, and said it started out as a small mole on his back.
“The doctor said that it was the equivalent of sitting in the sun for 45 years,” he said.
Luckily, Bender caught it before it was too late. Three surgeries and 12 years later, the survivor is determined to put a stop to the disease that tried to stop him. “It's now my opportunity to give back to those people, and so that's what I’m out here doing,” he said.
But Bender is more than all talk: He's focused on fighting back against cancer through the American Cancer Society's annual Relay For Life to help anyone it has affected.
“We are out with every race, every origin, everybody - cancer doesn't discriminate against anybody,” he said. “If people truly wore a purple shirt every time they were a survivor, one out of three people would be wearing a purple shirt out there.”
Cancer never sleeps, and that's the whole point of the Relay For Life. The event lasts 24 hours, with participants walking around the clock to send a message that means remembering what cancer patients go through.
“We think one day out of the year, we can take that 24 hours and get through it,” said Jess Hinker, the distinguished events director for the American Cancer Society of Alaska. “It’s just a day in the life of the battle of cancer survivors.”
The Relay For Life also serves as a real life reminder. Nearly 1,000 Alaskans died last year from cancer, and 3,640 new cases popped up. It is the reason why the Relay pushes to continue raising awareness and funds.
“It’s right in our backyard, so that's why we are out here fundraising so we can invest more into research, we can invest more into our programs and services that we offer here in this state,” Hinker said.
A large percentage of the dollars raised stays in state to offer patients free lodging, transportation and travel. “We try to take as much financial burden off of any cancer patients as possible,” Hinker said. It's a mission supporters, volunteers, and survivors like Bender are determined to see to the end, because each step they take brings them even closer to saying goodbye to cancer for good.
“It’s everywhere, it’s time to stand up and really fight back and end this disease,” said Bender.
The goal for this year's Relay For Life is to raise $400,000, money officials said goes towards saving 360 lives across the globe every day. Their goal is to make it 1,000 a day by the year 2015.