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Casey Christie / The Californian

Team FOTA, Friends of Those Affected, participates in the annual Relay for Life event Saturday in Oildale.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

During the annual Relay for Life in Bakersfield, Saturday, cancer survivor Willie Newman is pushed around the track by a friend during the morning introductions of the weekend event.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Members of team Destiny's Candyland get support from each other during the annual Relay for Life event in Bakersfield. They walk to help raise funds to find a cure for cancer and further research.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Thousands turn out for the annual Relay for Life in May 2013 including this group (Team Small Miracles). They show their enthusiasm as they pass by the main stage area at the corner of Merle Haggard and Airport drives.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Members of team Destiny's Candyland cheer during the annual Relay for Life event in Bakersfield in 2013 while they walked to help raise funds to find a cure for cancer and further research.

Gilbert Rayna looked and sounded like a carnival barker who had talked his way into Saturday's Bakersfield Relay for Life.

"Walk a lap, get a bead -- free!" the 51-year-old in tie-dye called out from the sidelines as he gave sweltering passersby a squirt from his incessant spray bottle.

And why not? In its 22 years, the annual American Cancer Society fundraiser has become a festival of sorts, with two live music stages, bounce houses, good food and every opportunity to spend money on something fun.

Leave it to Bakersfield to turn tragedy into a chance to join together in a spirit of community and generosity.

"It's what we do," said Marci Kizziar, Rayna's teammate on Team Epi's Cancer Bites, which has already raised $35,000, placing them eighth among the event's 363 teams.

"Of course, when it's hot out here, we wonder why we do it," she added with a laugh.

True, Saturday near Meadows Field was a hot one -- perhaps the hottest Relay in recent years. But at least it wasn't as dusty as last year's event, thanks to grass trimmings left to cover the dirt and multiple passes of a water-spraying truck.

This year also featured a focus on luminaria, the paper lanterns bearing the name of a cancer survivor or victim or, really, anyone donors felt like honoring with a $15 donation.

Along one stretch of the event's walking track, volunteers filled tens of thousands of luminaria with sand. Behind them, helpers loaded the white bags onto a steady stream of trucks that delivered them around the track, to be lit up with yellow glow sticks once the sun set.

Luminaria Chairwoman LeAnn Yacopetti had set her sights on beating 2012's mark of 17,300 of the lanterns.

"We're beating that," she said. "We're trying for the world record, but I don't know." According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she said, that would mean surpassing 48,000 luminaria.

"There's an emphasis this year" on luminaria, she said. "We're the No. 1 relay in the world, so we want the whole world with us, so they can be part of it, too. And we're trying to raise money."

There was no confirming Saturday that Bakersfield's Relay is, indeed, the world's top cancer fundraising event, though in recent years organizers say it has come within the top two.

What organizers could confirm Saturday was that 6,430 people had registered for the event, though it was clear many thousands more were present.

Accounting Chairwoman Jan Allen also stated unequivocally that things were running smoother this year than last, thanks to traffic flow changes at the 10 a.m. start of the event.

For all of Saturday's laughing and enjoyment, there was no attempt to play down the reason behind it all. The money being raised was to be spent fighting an affliction that has affected countless Bakersfield families.

Behind the team booth of local law firm LeBeau-Thelen LLP, Laura Ashley was brought to tears by a wall of photos. Each image was that of a cancer survivor or victim.

Maneuvering her wheelchair back and forth in front of the photos, the 61-year-old kidney cancer survivor sobbed as she pointed out to a reporter several relatives who had contracted the disease.

There was her 42-year-old daughter, who had survived cervical cancer. There was her 70-year-old husband who had survived melanoma. There was her 82-year-old aunt who had overcome ovarian and cervical cancer.

Others on the wall had not been so fortunate.

"There's a baby up here, was 6 years old," she said, overcome with emotion. "That's too young."

Despite her sadness, Ashley found a reason to be very glad. It was all around her, behind every item sold, every lap walked.

"I think it's pretty wonderful," she said, beginning to brighten up. "Hopefully someone else doesn't have to deal with cancer the way my family has."