By Jenna Milly
Updated September 08, 2012 at 10:40 PM EDT

They wanted to move us. And oh, did they know how.

The highlight of the Stand Up to Cancer telethon helmed by Gwyneth Paltrow and a cast of A-list celebrities Friday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was Taylor Swift’s ode to a cancer victim, a 3-year-old boy named Ronan.

If you’re not getting emotional yet, Swift did it for you. The 22-year-old country singer struggled to hold back tears as she sang the touching ballad she wrote after reading a mom’s blog about losing her little boy to neuroblastoma last year. The song begins, “I remember your bare feet down the hallway, I remember your little laugh…”

The audience of Hollywood elite, cancer survivors, and fans choked up as they listened to this and other testimonies aimed at inspiring donors to give funds to the Stand Up to Cancer organization.

If one thing was certain among those in the audience, cancer touches everyone, even the most famous celebrities. Julia Roberts lost her father to cancer when he was 42. She was 10 years old at the time. “One in two men will get cancer,” she tells the audience. That’s half of all the men you know.

Roberts was one of the only speakers to be guided off stage after giving her testimony. This sparked the beginning of what would become a very tearful event for everyone involved. But good tears! Tears of compassion. At least, that’s what those sitting around me in the overlook balcony kept whispering as we cried through every segment of the show.

Justin Timberlake spoke on behalf of pediatric cancer funding by giving a nod to an 11-year-old cancer fighter who sat in the audience with his family. Timberlake’s fiancé, Jessica Biel, also asked for support by noting that “every 3 and 1/2 minutes, a child is diagnosed with cancer.” Women wiped their eyes; men put their heads down, and when Alicia Keys sat alone at her piano and sang “Not Even the King,” it was pure waterworks among those in the front few rows.

Musical numbers by Coldplay and Tim McGraw also kept audiences enraptured for 60 minutes of the uninterrupted telethon. The show was simultaneously broadcast without commercial interruptions on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and nearly 20 other networks.

Emma Stone and Matt Damon remembered friends and family lost to this tragic disease, while Tom Hanks also appeared unexpectedly to urge support. Other surprises included Robert Pattinson (he wasn’t originally listed to attend) and the occasional backstage peek-in. More than a dozen celebrities took donations from surprised callers to find out that, yes, the actor you see on TV is actually answering the phone at Stand Up to Cancer. The most notable came when Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet cracked up a lady from Michigan. She was shocked, and so were we, at how moving this operation against cancer had become.

They know how to get you in Hollywood, they know just how. You can’t cry the whole time. You have to laugh a little, too. When Seth Rogan asked for support, he pleaded with the audience to remember that someone out there in the medical community must beat this disease, despite the fact that he “flunked 10th grade science.”

Katie Couric also lightened the otherwise solemn mood when she spoke of preventing colon cancer — she lost her husband to the disease — by making fun of her cleanse regime. “It comes in vanilla, strawberry… I think Chelsea Handler even has one that’s vodka-flavored,” she said. “It is not the tastiest beverage in the world, but it is a small price to pay for potentially saving your own life.”

Jumping on the joke game, Samuel L. Jackson also poked cancer in the rear. He told African-American men to “get their butt to the doctor, literally” in hopes of early detection.

Perhaps these tears of sadness or tears of laughter will add to the cause that in 2008 raised a reported $100 million for its first telethon. “Cancer is one big bully,” Jackson said. It doesn’t look like Hollywood is going to let that stop them from fighting, even if it means getting a little sentimental once in a while.