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A birthday celebration for cancer survivors
Cancer survivors Teresa Hodges, left, and Raquel Castro lead fellow survivors in the survivor lap Saturday. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Raquel Castro was ready to party.

She couldn’t wait to hear the sweet strands of “Happy Birthday.”

It wasn’t just any party, either.

It was a true celebration of life triumphing over one of the biggest scrooges of our age - cancer.

Hundreds of other voices joined Castro’s Saturday morning filling the Sierra High stadium with the lyrics of the traditional birthday song as over 150 cancer survivors filled seats for the opening ceremony of the Manteca 24 Hour Relay for Life.

Most wore purple T-shirts proclaiming, “Got It, Fought It, Surviving It.” There were toddlers and there were the young at heart. Many wore links of paper chains with each link representing a year they have survived.

They call them survivors. But they are also heroes.  

Joe Bick is among them. The Special Forces veteran may not see it that way but he is a hero. He has served America on dangerous, classified missions. But the fact at age 24 at the prime of his life he was ordered back to the United States to fight an enemy even more deadly than modern-day terrorists speaks volumes of his courage.

Bick chose to fight cancer. Seventeen years later he was standing in front of the Manteca Relay for Life gathering designed as a celebration of life for cancer survivors as well as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. It was clear he has beaten back cancer thanks, in part, to the advances of cancer researchers as well as the support of family, friends, and complete strangers.

Bick reminded those in attendance just how important strangers can be in helping cancer victims.

“There are 350 people who can’t thank you today because they are busy getting out of a hospital,” Bick said. “There are 350 people who are beating cancer today thanks to people like you.”

The 350 number was in reference to the cancer patients who would go home in the 24-hour period that Manteca Relay for Life participants spent at Sierra High stadium. Going home not to die, but going home to live and to celebrate more birthdays.

And they are doing it not just because of the money raised, but because of complete strangers giving them hope.

If you doubt that, just ask Castro. Five days before a previous Relay for Life she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She credited the support of friends and strangers at that year’s Relay for Life to helping her cope better with the news than she expected she would.

“I will see all of you (cancer survivors) in 364 days when we are back for the Relay for Life 2013,” Castro said.