Dr. Gordon Klatt walked and ran for 24 hours around a Tacoma, Washington, track in 1985, raising $27,000 for the American Cancer Society.
More than 300 joined Klatt the next year, and since then, Relay For Life has raised more than $5 billion for cancer research.
"Relay For Life is the No. 1 fundraiser for American Cancer Society," said Mandie Sidener. "It allows us to fund groundbreaking research we're part of. The American Cancer Society has been a part of every major breakthrough."
The American Cancer Society fundraiser also helps provide wigs for people losing their hair and funds Hope Lodge in St. Louis, which is a place for cancer patients and caregivers to stay while undergoing treatments.
The community and family-friendly event used to be overnight, but to accommodate families' busy lifestyles, the schedule has become more flexible, with relays now ranging from six to 24 hours.
Awards are provided for team's best campsite, best rookie team, top fundraisers and most spirited.
Relay For Life teams raise money throughout the year by hosting trivia nights, Taste of Hope events where restaurants give a percentage of proceeds to the American Cancer Society and a women's get-together the night before hunting season starts.
Schools also support Relay For Life with relay recess, combining fundraising, physical activity and lesson plans.
"It focuses on teaching the kids sun safety, eating healthy, not using tobacco products and physical activity," Sidener said.
Teams sell food at the Relay For Life event and sell bags with candles or glow sticks for the luminaria ceremony that remembers people who died from cancer, honors those who beat cancer and supports those who continue to fight the disease. The bags are decorated with the names of those remembered and honored. During the ceremony, poems are sometimes read and a choir often sings a song.
"It's definitely the most serious reflective time of the night," Sidener said. "It's a neat way to honor people."
A survivor dinner is also shared by cancer survivors and caregivers, at no charge.
"It's nice because they get to meet other survivors, as well," Sidener said. "Relay's a great place for people who are caregivers — those who walked that journey with someone. It's a nice networking opportunity. I don't know if there's any other place where you meet such kind-hearted people in one place."
A Relay For Life event is scheduled from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday at the Saluki Track and Field Complex, in Carbondale, and from 4 - 10 p.m. Saturday at the Nashville Grade School.