ALBANY -- One sign of the holiday season kicking off in Albany is the annual Lights of Love event at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which is held as part of an effort to raise money for local cancer patients and their families.
This year's program is expected to be as memorable as any other.
"We are able to raise money for certain causes for cancer patients," said Mary Bickerstaff, chairperson for this year's Lights of Love campaign. "It is a very emotional and celebratory time."
The program is 12 months in the making. Donations are raised over the year, with the "Lights of Love" event held in December to acknowledge the culmination of the campaign.
"It's a year-round thing," said Dianne Owens, director of volunteer services at Phoebe.
The program is scheduled to include addresses from several individuals including Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick and representatives from the Junior Woman's Club of Albany -- the group that sponsors the event.
There will also be an address from Lynda Gray, an ovarian cancer patient, who will be serving as the tree lighter this year.
Gray, who was diagnosed in May 2005, is undergoing treatments. She has been through three major surgeries and many rounds of chemotherapy. The longest remission she has had to date is seven months.
"I was very fearful and shocked, almost devastated (upon diagnosis)," she said. "It (cancer) is touching so many lives."
Gray is now actively involved in ovarian cancer awareness. She said the support network from the cancer center staff at Phoebe as well as her peers has perhaps been the most important thing to her while trying to get through her treatments.
It's almost as if the people at the hospital are an extended family to her.
"Through this we have formed a bond," she said. "When you go into a chemo room, there are no strangers. We care about each other."
For the past 26 years, expenditures for the program have included transports for patients, a communal kitchen and facility renovations, among others.
"The true meaning of Christmas is to give," said Gray.
This year, officials plan to use the funds raised to buy another van for transport -- the hospital's fifth. So far, $26,000 has been raised for this year's campaign. Officials hope to get $40,000.
"I see us meeting our goal," Owens said. "People want to be a part of this. This is a way to give back. It's just a small way to do something."
Given the impact cancer has in the region, officials feel this will continue to be an important cause to residents in the area.
"It's a disease that affects everyone," Bickerstaff said. "It's more than just money, it's about hope and courage."
The generosity of the people that do give to the campaign have an impact to those directly benefiting from it.
"(The donations) mean our needs are going to be met," Gray said. "We all share in this fight. It just helps in so many different ways."
The first campaign raised $17,000. Last year, roughly $40,000 was given. The most money raised in one year was $67,175, which was in 2001. In all, approximately $1.2 million has been donated to help area cancer patients and their families.
The ceremony will take place at 7 p.m. Monday outside the main lobby of the hospital.