Hundreds of flickering candles shone through the darkness at the annual Relay for Life in Lake Nona, each one representing a life affected by cancer. And as College of Medicine participants gathered at the huge fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, the battle to cure the disease was a personal one. First-year medical student Robert Lisac was diagnosed with leukemia at age 12. College of Medicine admissions coordinator Wandy Cruz-Velázquez lost her 15-year-old cousin, Caleb, to brain cancer just days before the relay.

“I’m here to support them, even though it’s been really hard for me,” Cruz-Velázquez said. “It hasn’t even been two weeks since Caleb left us, but I just feel like my heart is in it.”

The Lake Nona Relay brought in more than 200 participants April 4-5 who walked all night in shifts, so someone was constantly moving on the track at Lake Nona High School. Many stayed overnight in tents, until the event officially ended at 8 a.m. the next morning. Twenty College of Medicine students participated in the relay, and the college’s student acapella choir performed the national anthem and serenaded the crowd during a survivor’s dinner. The 25 participating teams raised more than $25,000 for cancer research.

The event included a memorial for those who had lost their cancer battle. Participants lined the high school’s track, each holding a candle. At 9 p.m., all the lights were turned out, making the stadium lit only by the hundreds of candles, some assembled on the bleachers to spell out the word HOPE. Twelve speakers each read a passage, dedicated to the 12 months of the year, and describing the events the late cancer patient had missed. Lisac lit each of their candles in his role as the Lake Nona Relay for Life mission chair.

He talked about how his grueling battle with cancer had ultimately led to his dream of becoming a healer. “It was basically four years of the worst treatment you can imagine, I had a hip replacement after two years, two knee replacements… just a real complicated battle with cancer,” he said. After receiving a bone-marrow transplant, Lisac has been cancer-free since high school. “My experience with leukemia is what led me to med school,” he said. “Spending so much time with doctors was an eye-opening experience, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else for a living.”

First-year medical student Chad Selph, joined the walk in memory of two people who perished from cancer – his grandfather who died of leukemia four years ago, and his friend’s mother, who just recently lost her battle. “I don’t know when we will find the true cure for cancer, but I’m hoping if we do, that everyone will have the benefit of knowing that this might have been part of it,” he said.

Cruz-Velázquez has been a leader at the Relay for Life for the last several years after losing her father to cancer. This year, she turned the leadership over to students, in part because she was helping her family care for Caleb, who was diagnosed with cancer last summer and died eight months later.

“The idea is to eradicate cancer someday, and that idea excites me because way too many people are losing their lives to this disease,” she said. “I think that the cure exists, and hopefully I’ll be a part of helping get it.”

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