Spreading the message of fighting cancer is something Relay for Life has figured out and increasingly capitalized on during the past 17 years. The lighted luminaries have become both a classic symbol of hope and a way to personally memorialize a lost loved one to cancer. For the third year, Fillmore County will have another way for family members and friends to share memories with each other through a video tribute.

This year's Relay event on July 12 will be held at the Harmony Community Center after two years in Preston. The video, which is put together by Gabby Gatzke of Relay team Chic's 4 Life, was shared during the Survivor's Tea as survivors remembered those who had beaten cancer and those who had not. It also was projected on a wall during the evening, so all the family and friends could see it. Last year, the video was moved inside due to inclement weather, but will again be shown outside this year.

Messages in the video range from memorials for someone who was lost to triumphs related by survivors. The video has music backing it up and, according to cancer survivor Ann O'Connor, the whole video can cause people to experience a lot of emotion.

"It brings back memories. You see many people crying when they see this," shared Ann, whose husband Jim is also a cancer survivor.

The O'Connor's story is unique, but easily related to by the many people who are or have been affected by cancer.

In March of 2009, Jim was diagnosed with prostate cancer following a prostate exam. Since it was caught in its early stages, he was able, through treatment, to fight it off. During August of the same year, doctors found a lump in Ann, which ended up being diagnosed as stage one breast cancer. Again, since the screening had caught it early on, the cancer was able to be removed. Ann underwent 30 days of radiation, and was put on an oral chemotherapy pill for five years. She will be completing her fourth year of treatment this October and hasn't had any hiccups since.

In 2011, doctors found a brain tumor in Jim that had been there for close to 16 years. Having had few to no symptoms of a tumor for that amount of time, it came as a surprise to Ann and Jim.

"He never had a headache . . . unless I yelled at him," laughed Ann. Upon a complicated, but ultimately successful surgery, the benign or non-cancerous tumor was removed. Jim went home after recovering for two weeks, which Ann still finds remarkable. Soon thereafter, Jim was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia following a routine checkup. Ann said this was the "better" leukemia and Jim is doing well.

In most of their experiences with cancer, the O'Connors have luckily been able to catch it at an early stage. They have both become dedicated advocates for getting screened.

"It does pay to have the mammogram and prostate screenings," Ann said. They also have become active in research initiatives, breast cancer for Ann and leukemia for Jim.

After their diagnoses in 2009, the Relay for Life suddenly held more meaning for them. "Before that time, we never really knew much about it," explained Ann.

Jim said he didn't know anything about Relay for Life before then. Now, "I'm all gun-ho for Relay for Life! I'm so happy I went into it," Ann expressed.

Through it, the O'Connors have been able to memorialize members of their family who died from cancer. Both Jim and Ann's mothers and Ann's sister died from cancer. Now, as members of the Relay for Life team, Chic's 4 Life, Ann and Jim work to raise money so more people don't have to have the same fate as their relatives.

"I don't know what I'd do without it now," explained Ann.

She has recognized some people's wariness of getting involved. "When you don't have it (cancer), you don't get involved as much," she said, recalling how she didn't feel as pushed to get involved before she got breast cancer. When she did, she and Jim found a community of support unlike anything they had ever before been a part of.

"The Relay for Life is a social thing. People get together and discuss their families and their problems. It is helping everyone in the county," Ann stated.

The amount of money that pours in from every corner of the county helps too. Having raised over $140,000 last year, Fillmore County was ranked number five in the nation for per capita fundraising.

This year's goal is $125,000, but Harmony Relay for Life organizer Lavonne Mensink said she feels good they will beat it again.

"The income keeps going up," Ann remarked. "They say the economy is bad, but people keep giving. The businesses have been overwhelming."

Throughout the year, many private events have quietly been contributing to the over $54,000 the county has raised so far. This includes the money from the video tribute.

A 50-word tribute costs $5 and a 25-word tribute is $3. If one has a message, contact Gabby Gatzke, 507-259-7532, or Ib Gatzke, 507-251-0206.

Ann said she really appreciates what the video brings to the event. "Some people can't walk around the luminaries," she shared. Last year, she drove people around on a golf cart.

The video allows people to stop, take time and watch as familiar faces show up on the screen. Some messages will be somber because the person is no longer there and some will be happy because the person smiling in the picture has survived, in no small part because of the fundraising efforts in their own hometown.

It's just part of what is an overwhelmingly hopeful evening from the Survivor's Tea to the Balloon Release to the early morning breakfast. It doesn't end there because cancer never sleeps.

Speaking for all those fighting and surviving cancer, Ann asked, "Please keep us in mind through prayers and donations. We need it."

If the past is anything to judge by, Fillmore County won't be seeing any shortage of those anytime soon.