A boy gets a better view of the pre-run activities.

A boy gets a better view of the pre-run activities.

‘Iron’ Mike Bensson is in the fight of his life, but looking out over a sea of people filling Grantham Lions Park in St. Catharines Saturday morning, he realized he’s not in his fight alone.

The long-time disc jockey with 97.7 HTZ-FM radio, who was acting as emcee at the eighth annual Rankin Cancer Run, said the unprecedented size of the crowd is proof that Niagara is united in its fight against the disease he himself is battling: cancer.

“We’re all out here as one,” Bensson, his gravelly voice more raspy than usual, told the crowd. “The main thing is that you are here.

“We’ll show everyone we’re working against this awful sickness.”

Run director Mary Ann Edwards said the number of people registered had already topped 9,000 as of Thursday. She expects when the dust settles this year’s run will top 11,000 people, smashing last year’s record turnout of just over 10,000.

Even before Saturday’s gigantic turnout, the run had already raised $3.229 million for local cancer supports and services in its first seven years. This year’s total was still being tallied.

Saturday’s event was a bittersweet one. People wore T-shirts with upbeat messages on them, such as ‘Take a step, make a difference,’ and one simply reading ‘Hope.’ But there were also many people with messages such as ‘Mom,’ and ‘Grandma 52-08’ written on their sleeves—simple words to remember loved ones lost to cancer.

Among the massive crowds there were also an untold number of people wearing orange T-shirts, signifying them as very special people: cancer survivors.

Among those was a little boy in a tiny stroller, pushed by a strapping man with big arms bearing tattoos. When he brought his four-year-old son Rowan to the front of the stage to address the crowd, Shawn Langille’s voice cracked as he spoke of what Rowan has endured.

Just four years old, the boy has been battling cancer for three-quarters of his life.

“He’s a trooper,” his dad said. “He’s an inspiration to a lot of kids. He’s still fighting.”

He asked those taking part in the run to keep supporting it so Rowan and other kids have the help they need in taking on a merciless disease.

“It’s for kids like him,” he said. “They all need it.”

Pastor Martin Nieuwets from Bethany Community Church in St. Catharines asked people to pray for those fighting cancer, for their loved ones keeping vigil at their bedsides or driving them to and from medical appointments, and to those who lost their battles.

“Let’s lift our hearts to heaven and remember those who have gone before us,” he said.

Brock University president Jack Lightstone said by taking part in the run, Niagara residents are collectively doing their part to make the lives of those fighting cancer better.

“It is so inspiring to see so many people from Niagara come out,” he said.

Saturday’s run was dedicated to the memory of Bob Meunier, a former St. Catharines fire inspector and long-time Rankin Run supporter who recently died suddenly. Members of his family were there to hear Bruce Williamson, a St. Catharines city councillor, speak about Meunier’s lasting legacy and the continuation of the run.

“I know his courageous life spirit is here,” said Williamson.

“Hope is a beautiful thing. We are keeping alive the hope.”

For her part, run director Edwards would like nothing better than for the 2013 Rankin Run to be the last one because that would mean there’s no longer a need for it.

“I want it gone,” she said after the run started. “I want it obliterated. Then I know cancer is gone.”

Unfortunately, while survival rates are climbing thanks to ongoing research, Edwards said by talking with team captains it’s clear the number of new cancer cases being diagnosed continues to escalate.

“The numbers are skyrocketing,” she said. “Cancer has consumed us.”

But Edwards said she’ll never forget how Niagara residents bought into her vision of a run in which all the money raises stays in Niagara.

“We’re just forever grateful that people from the get-go believed in us,” she said. “I can’t ever thank them enough.”