Relay for Life Founder Started Small

Dr. Gordy Klatt, a colon and rectal surgeon from Tacoma, Washington, says his connection with colon cancer patients inspired him to volunteer for the American Cancer Society and, ultimately, create the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraiser.

The idea of Relay for Life sprung from Klatt’s passion for marathon running. Klatt hosted an event where he ran and walked for twenty-four hours around a track and gained pledges from people for the American Cancer Society.

“I raised money according to how many laps I did and I raised about $28,000,” he says. “Every time I went around the track I knew I was raising another $200, or whatever it was, so that helped keep me going.”

Klatt says his patients and family supported him around the track. He, and others helping with the fundraiser, realized the efforts of a community could be harnessed.

“[Relay for Life is] a community happening that brings people together in support of a fight to defeat cancer not only by raising money, but also supporting the people who get cancer and helping them in their survival, and in remembering the people who haven’t survived,” Klatt says.

In 1986, the first official American Cancer Society Relay for Life was held in Washington based on Klatt’s idea. It drew twenty teams and raised about $38,000.

The idea of Relay for Life moved quickly to Oregon and California. Today the concept is used throughout the United States and around the globe.

“Almost everyone is touched by cancer at some point in their life so, therefore, there are people who are willing to fight it and give money to try and eradicate it,” Klatt says. “That’s what drives people to donate.”

Klatt travels around the country to speak at events with his wife, and the couple has been to almost every state. Klatt visited Wisconsin as a guest of the DeForest Relay for Life July 29-30.

“The small communities in America are the ones who really do it the best, I think,” Klatt says.

Relay for Life events raise about half of the American Cancer Society’s annual budget. For Klatt, this means more funding for research to find a cure for the numerous types of cancers.

Klatt says his story proves that one person can truly make a difference if they have an idea. “It certainly wasn’t planned out by me to be that way,” he says. “It was the right thing at the right time.”

For more information about the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, please visit

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