Over the past 66 years, the Fifth District Eagles Cancer Telethon has donated more than $18 million to cancer research. The event claims the title of the longest locally run telethon in the U.S., and it’s going to take more than a pandemic to put a stop to that track record.

This Saturday, the telethon — with live hosts but previously recorded presentations and performances — will carry the title onward.

Teresa Chapman, executive director of the Eagles Cancer Telethon, has been involved with the event for the past 24 years.

In its long history, the telethon has seen many changes. In the beginning, everything was done with paper forms. There were no computers or social media, and donations were picked up in person.

Chapman said KTTC’s commitment to the telethon has been invaluable, turning the fundraiser into a 20-hour telethon hosting more than 125 performances each year.

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A crew gets the stage in the Mayo Civic Center Auditorium ready for the telethon Saturday morning, Jan. 18, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
A crew gets the stage in the Mayo Civic Center Auditorium ready for the telethon Saturday morning, Jan. 18, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

In a typical year, the telethon’s presentations and performances would last through the night, often into the wee hours of the morning. This year, all the talent will be recorded from past telethons, but hosts will still be live in the KTTC studios during the event. Chapman said the planning required “a lot of rethinking and changes” to make sure everyone would stay safe during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is here,” she said, “but so is cancer.”

“If we were to just disappear, what would that have said to all those that have been touched by cancer?” she added.

Chapman said the Eagles Cancer Telethon is about supporting its motto, “Together we can make a difference,” and raising funds for cancer research. In a time marked by division, that sense of community spirit and coming together over something bigger than any one individual is more important than ever, she said.

The money raised through the telethon will go to the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, the Hormel Institute at the University of Minnesota, and the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota.

This year, usual methods of raising money, such as an in-person auction, the kickoff diner, and other in-person fundraisers have been canceled. That means the telethon needs even more help to meet its fundraising goals. Ninety percent of the funds raised by the telethon go directly to cancer research because of all the volunteer support the telethon receives.

Many of the performers each year have a personal connection to the disease.

“There are some that come to perform in memory or in support of someone they love, and they share their story with us,” Chapman said. “It can be really hard.”

She is also moved by the notes and cards the telethon receives from donors who have reached cancer-free milestones and from others who have lost loved ones to the disease.

Despite the hardships of adjusting to a pandemic, Chapman is unwavering in her commitment to the telethon and the community that supports it.

“I am here until I cannot do it anymore,” she said, “or until we have a cure.”

If you watch

What: 67th Annual Eagles Cancer Telethon

When: 2 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23

Where: Online at https://eaglescancertelethon.org.

Get involved: Donate online, drop off or mail checks to the Rochester Eagles Club at 917 15th Ave. SE, Rochester MN 55904, or call 507-292-6544 from 2 to 10 p.m. Saturday.