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Donna Cottrell was just 20 years old and two months into her marriage when she was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. The disease is now considered curable, but back in the '80s, it wasn't, and it required extensive surgeries and dangerous radiation just to have a fighting chance.

"The way they treated it back then was much different than they treat it now," Cottrell said. "I had to have a major surgery, and now they don't even do that kind of operation anymore."

Cottrell's treatment also included radiation, and it's only now, 36 years later, that she's discovering that it might have hurt her more than it helped her.

"Last year I had to have open heart surgery and a valve replacement," she said, "and it wasn't because of heart disease; it was because the radiation from the '80s actually damaged my heart."

Although she wishes she didn't have the struggles that she does, she's thankful that nowadays no one else has to suffer the way that she did, and that's the reason why she's become involved with the American Cancer Society's (ACS) Relay for Life.

"The biggest thing for me and where my passion comes from is the fact that it's night and day between what I went through in the '80s and the treatments they have today," she said, "and it's because of the American Cancer Society that those advancements are possible."

Cottrell first got involved with Relay for Life in Cape Coral, where her sister helped found the walk. She took her passion with her when she and her husband moved to Marco Island almost a decade ago.

Now she serves as fundraising chair for the Marco Relay for Life, and one of the fundraising initiatives this year is creating mosaic-style banners.

"We have 4x8 banners that we're going to hang up around the track, and people can purchase a 6 inch square for $25, decorate it and put it on the banners," she said.

The banners signify all of the people who've been affected by cancer, which is pretty much everyone.

"It's hard to find somebody who hasn't been touched by cancer in some way because it's just out there so much," she said. "Relay becomes a place where people can come together and understand both their joy and their sorrow."

Unfortunately for Cottrell, the event itself is a source of sorrow.

"The Relay for Life two years ago was actually the last day my husband left the house before passing away," she said, "so the event has both good and bad memories for me."

But there's light in the darkness, and hope in despair.

"The luminaria ceremony is at 9, and we'll light up the entire track with bags in honor of those we've lost to cancer," Cottrell said. "We'll also spell out the word 'hope' in the middle of the field because that's what this event is all about: spreading hope.

"If the community hasn't seen it, they're missing out on something special; there's something magical about the feeling you get when you see the survivors walk around the track and realize the span of who cancer touches, from children to the elderly."

If you go

What: Marco Island Relay for Life

When: April 1, 4 - 10 p.m.

Where: Veterans Community Park, 901 Park Ave.

Information: Sue Olszak, 239-642-8800 or sue.olszak@cancer.org

Banner squares: Donna Cottrell, 239-887-2809 or donnacottrell112@gmail.com

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