You are about to meet eight people who describe themselves as very, very lucky…as fortunate…as blessed. You are about to meet people with cancer.
To be accurate, some have had cancer and are now considered cancer-free. Others have finished treatment and are now being monitored and tested regularly, eyes focused on that five-year, cancer-free milestone. And still others are in the midst of active treatment. But all are remarkable, and none stand alone.
These eight survivors, their families, their friends, their caregivers and more than 10,000 others of like mind and spirit, will gather May 9-10 at the Gwinnett County Fairground for the fifteenth annual Gwinnett Relay for Life. Once again, they”ll make history.
Relay for Life is the signature event of the American Cancer Society, held in every state and around the world to raise money for cancer research, education, advocacy and patient services. Gwinnett”s Relay for Life is the single largest in the world, with a 2008 fundraising goal of $2.6 million. Also this year, the Gwinnett event will surpass an incredible milestone – raising more than $20 million in 15 years.
Almost 2,000 cancer survivors will lead the survivor”s lap this May, each an inexplicable mix of ordinary and extraordinary, and each a reminder of what is possible when a community comes together.
“We are so lucky.”
Seven-year-old Kaylee Stilwell wants to be a zoo keeper, like Steve Irwin, when she grows up. She plans to marry long-time love and preschool beau Michael. (Sshh! Do not tell Michael!) She”ll start small; caterpillars are her favorite right now. But then again, maybe she”ll be an artist. Everything and anything is possible for Kaylee now, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma just weeks after her first birthday.
A mother”s intuition that something “just wasn”t right” led Scott and Kim Stilwell to their pediatrician on a Saturday morning in 2001. Kaylee had been running a fever and was vomiting frequently, initially thought to be caused by a virus or teething. But after several days of no improvement, Kim couldn”t shake her belief that something else was wrong.
A physical exam confirmed Kim”s fear. “They felt her stomach and her liver, and scheduled an ultrasound for Monday.”The scan revealed a tumor – neuroblastoma, the most common cancer in infants. There are approximately 650 new cases of neuroblastoma each year.
Surgeons removed a one-pound tumor from Kaylee”s abdomen. “That explained the little pot belly that I thought all babies had,” recalls Kim. The Stilwells initially thought that Kaylee had stage three cancer and would require chemotherapy and radiation. A week after the surgery though, they received a call with the best possible news – Kaylee”s cancer was stage one and follow-up treatment was not necessary.
Kaylee has been closely monitored and regularly tested in the months and years after her surgery. But now, at six years out, says Scott, the regular testing is no longer necessary.
“We are so lucky,” says Kim, a kindergarten teacher.That sentiment is never far from the Stilwell”s minds and often propels them to action. The family takes presents each year to Children”s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Kim and Kaylee are both growing their hair for Locks of Love.
Scott and Kim will take a very healthy Kaylee, and brother Calvin, age three, to Relay this year, participating as they have every year since 2002, when they first walked the survivors lap with their little girl. To raise money for the Relay effort, they sell root beer and Coke floats. “Mostly,” says Kaylee, “I just like to drink them.”
“I work hard everyday not to be fearful.”
Last May, just three weeks after she met her future husband, twenty-four-year-old Caroline Pitts found a lump in her right breast. “Cade said he knew he would marry me from our first date, which turned out to be a very good thing,” Caroline says.
By June, life was a flurry of doctor”s appointments, suspicious mammograms, and ultrasounds. A biopsy was done in July, confirming mucinous carcinoma, a rare type of breast cancer.And on August 12, Caroline Pitts married Cade Robinson, in a ceremony planned in just one week. “I always knew I wanted to get married quickly!” laughs Caroline. “We wanted to go through this as husband and wife.”
Caroline”s life became an incredible contrast – the joy of being getting married versus the shock of being diagnosed so young with breast cancer. “The weird thing is that I”ve always been really aware of breast cancer, and had been doing self-exams for years.# Young people are not immune.”
The day they returned from their honeymoon, Caroline saw a plastic surgeon. Ten days after her wedding, on August 24, she underwent a double mastectomy, recommended because of her young age at diagnosis, and began reconstructive surgery. As the young woman with the beautiful smile and undaunted spirit admits, “this is not a typical first year of marriage.”
Despite eighteen weeks of chemotherapy, Caroline is proud to have never missed a day of work, although she”s adjusted her schedule to accommodate the expected rhythm of the “good days and bad days” the treatment brings. She works as marketing specialist in the software industry.
“I work hard everyday not to be fearful. You have to fight the feelings of unfairness,” she believes. “Everyone goes through experiences that aren”t fair.”
This will be Caroline”s first Relay for Life. “All of my treatment was developed as a result of research. If that”s where the funds raised at Relay go, I want to be there.”
At home in Snellville, Caroline and Cade “are still adjusting to the new normal. (Cancer) is not going to be our life. It”s just this thing that interrupted our life. God has taken care of us.”
“Think about the good, not the bad.”
Stephen Meadows walked his first Relay for Life survivor”s lap as an honorary chairperson at age three, wearing a mask and perched atop his dad”s shoulders. Now 14 and an eighth grader at Loganville Christian Academy, he is cancer free, a leukemia survivor who completed his treatment eight years ago.
Stephen”s mom, Jackie, recalls his diagnosis. “He”d been running a fever for 12 days, and we”d been back and forth from the pediatrician. On the twelfth day, he had a swollen lymph node and we went in for a 3:30 p.m. blood test. By 5 p.m., before I had even gotten home, there was a message from the doctor: “I”m coming to your house. We need to take him to Eggleston.””
“That was the end of our prior life, and the beginning of our new life,” Jackie says. “The first year, he was in the hospital 150 days. But we were very fortunate. The treatment worked, and he never relapsed.”
Stephen”s treatment continued until age six, and in 2005, he hit the five-years-out mark. Now, he”s in a “late effects” study where children who”ve had cancer are monitored for any effects from their treatment. Stephen has slight damage to his heart, and cannot lift weights or participate in a full-contact sport.
That hasn”t slowed Stephen down. He plays on the school basketball team, already 5″7″ tall. Golf is his favorite sport, though, and he also plays for his school. Thankfully, “I don”t remember a whole lot” of the very difficult treatment and frequent hospitalizations, Stephen says. His focus? “Think about the good, and not the bad.”
Both Jackie and her husband Jimmy remain active with Relay. Jackie, a teacher, for several years coordinated the honorary chairs for the event – any child in a Gwinnett County school who has cancer. “That was the biggest honor I”ve ever had – to see those bright-eyed children and their parents walk that lap.”
Jimmy, Jackie and Stephen will take that walk for the eleventh time this year. “We still go in the capacity of Stephen”s parents. We still walk that lap with him and will until he”s too old to be an honorary chair.”
“I feel life. God dried my tears…I don”t cry anymore.”
April 15 is a day that strikes an ominous chord with millions – Tax Day. For Nora Spencer, that day in 2004 will be forever imprinted on her mind. “I found a lump in my breast in the shower,” she remembers. “I cried and cried…and cried.”
Her mother had breast cancer, so Nora was consistent about getting mammograms. “I have three sisters. We just thought statistically – one of us would get it.”
Nora”s lump was cancer. Her recommended medical treatment plan was a lumpectomy, followed by chemo and radiation. Her emotional treatment plan centered on her faith, embodied by the strength gained from family, friends and fellow members at Hopewell Baptist Church.
“I wasn”t frantic. I was scared. But I was going to find some peace,” she says. “Having family and friends, and a lot of support is the best cure for breast cancer.”
Nora”s surgery came in mid-May, a conflict with an already scheduled event. “The year I was diagnosed, I had already signed up for Relay. Instead of Relay that year, I had surgery.”
A banking officer, Nora took a year off work, focusing on treatment and recovering from her home in Lawrenceville, surrounded by supportive husband Anthony and her sister, and helped by the counsel of the parish nurse at Hopewell.
“Chemo wasn”t as bad as I thought,” Nora says. “The most terrifying part was cutting my hair off.” A Christmas visit with family and a newly-shaven head prompted her nieces to wonder, “Where”s your hair, Auntie Nora?” Nora laughs, remembering. “The little things don”t matter anymore. I take life as God intended it – one day at time. Tomorrow isn”t promised to anyone.”
Her first Relay ended up being in Florida with her sister. Her participation here in Gwinnett the following year sparked a little interstate Relay rivalry. “I had to tell my sister then – that little Relay for Life thing you have in Florida? That”s nothing.”
This May, Nora will celebrate her fourth Relay. “I feel life. I feel good. God dried my tears. I don”t cry anymore.”
“I was not going to let this get me down.”
Mark Waters got into Relay 15 years ago on the ground floor, as one of the first volunteers and as a member of the initial steering committee. “Phylecia (Relay”s first chairperson) mentioned Relay to me and thought my running community might be interested. I went to one meeting, and told her it”d be an honor to be a part of this committee.”
Mark served three years on the steering committee, working to secure corporate partnerships and donations. “I was there to help people who needed to be helped. Little did I know that it would hit me.”
In 2000, at age 52, avid runner and marathon man Mark, an athlete with an impressive resting heart rate and blood pressure, noticed some persistent pain just below his belly button. He thought it was a strain from moving office furniture. His wife, Judy, thought he was “stupid” to not have had a physical and colonoscopy at his age. “I kept telling her – Honey, I”m right next to superman. I”m okay.”
Turns out, he wasn”t. He had colon cancer and needed immediate surgery. “It”s like having a bucket of cold water thrown on you.” His cancer had penetrated the colon wall and there was some lymph node involvement, necessitating a six-month course of chemotherapy.
“I decided that every time I walked through that door (to the infusion room) I was going to be smiling,” Mark says. “I was not going to let this get me down.” After every treatment, he and Judy would go to Hooters. “She liked the food, and I liked the scenery.”
He admits it wasn”t always easy. “There were some complications. I even told Judy goodbye.” Now eight years out, he returns to the doctor just once a year. His work as a regional sales manager for an import rug company keeps him traveling, and there are three grandchildren, including a new granddaughter, to focus on.
A former torch bearer for the survivor”s lap, Mark counts his role in Relay as one of life”s greatest thrills. “It”s been a journey, but it”s been a good one. Don”t ever give up.”
“You can”t let it cripple your life.”
Last year, on Mother”s Day weekend, Jim and Lisa Cauthen had to tell their two teenagers, Sarah and David, that Lisa had breast cancer. “This certainly wasn”t in our plan,” rememebers Lisa.
Weeks earlier, Lisa”s annual mammogram had revealed a suspicious spot, leading to a core needle biopsy. Lisa had been down this road before, with the results being benign. “So, I thought this one would be too.” Instead, she was diagnosed with cancer.
In Lisa”s case, doctors recommended a lumpectomy. Her May surgery showed clear lymph nodes and, ironically, landed Lisa premier seating at her daughter”s high school graduation. “We weren”t sure I”d be able to attend and handle the heat,” Lisa says. Sarah asked for and received permission for her mom to sit in the one guaranteed shady spot in the Brookwood High School football stadium – The Lodge, adjacent to the athletic department”s field house.
Summer brought the start of chemotherapy, followed by 33 radiation treatments that ended just before Halloween. Lisa, an administer of physician”s practices at Gwinnett Medical Center, found intense appreciation for the “kind and gentle” honesty of nurses and the wonder of wigs and makeup. Not on her list of favorite things is any reminder of the chemo infusions centers. “There will be no blue leather anything in my house.”
Cleary action-oriented, Lisa found comfort in maintaining the normalcy of everyday life. “I didn”t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she says. “I wanted life to go on. It is one of those things that is always with you, but you can”t let it cripple your life.”
In some ways, the caring messages from friends and co-workers were a surprise. “You find out that you are important to people. It was heart warming.” Diagnosed just prior to last year”s Relay, Lisa”s family and friends honored her with the event”s signature luminaries.
Right after her surgery, Lisa was told, “After today, you”re a survivor.” But to Lisa, she didn”t earn that status till the chemo was done and some of the “hurdles” were behind her. At this year”s Relay celebration, Lisa will take her first survivor lap – knowing she”s right where she belongs.
Ours “is a great story.”
Life seems full of irony for Dick and Phylecia Wilson. Phylecia, the first chairperson of Gwinnett Relay for Life, is widely credited with building Gwinnett”s event into the largest, most successful, in the world. A volunteer of stellar proportions, she”s served on numerous national American Cancer Society (ACS) boards, testified before Congress, and traveled the world to teach other communities how to do Relay like Gwinnett. She is also living with chronic myeloid leukemia and takes a remarkable drug developed through an ACS research grant – aka funds raised at Relay. Dick, or “Mr. Phylecia” as he likes to call himself and a devoted volunteer in his own right, has had bladder and prostate cancer.
It”s enough to make you think – what are the odds? But the Wilsons see it differently. “It”s a great story,” says Phylecia. “It”s the kind of story you want everyone to have.”
In 2001, Phylecia was diagnosed with leukemia, found during a routine colonoscopy. “I was diagnosed very early and started a clinical trial at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I was in remission within six weeks.” The trial drug was Gleevac, called STI571 then, developed by Dr. Brian Drucker with a grant from ACS. Seven years later, there”s no trace of cancer in her blood tests. “I was one of the very, very lucky people,” she says.
Dick was diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer in 2005. “When you”re diagnosed with cancer, there”s a sudden rush of fear… Phyelcia was so much help.” Dick also chose M.D.
Anderson for his treatment, undergoing nine-hour reconstructive bladder surgery. “They built a new bladder from my small intestine with little or no inconvenience to me. I slept through the whole thing,” he jokes.
Every six months, the Wilsons travel together to Houston for follow-up treatment and monitoring. “We take two days,” says Dick. “We got to the hospital, go out to dinner and fly home.”
Although Phylecia still operates her communications firm with an office in Gwinnett and remains active with ACS, the Wilsons have retired to Habersham where life is very good. Dick plays golf five or six days a week – “I”d play more if there were more days” – and visits from the grandchildren are frequent.
“We”ve had our share of cancer,” says Dick. “But I”m grateful every day that I get up.”