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Tue, May 17, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Cancer Survivors Dinner offers hope

Marshall Cancer Care’s annual dinner for survivors is always bittersweet.

Those who are able to attend are thankful to be alive and are an encouragement for others. It’s impossible, though, not to be reminded of the many who did not survive.

About 250 people gathered in the ballroom of the Guntersville State Park Thursday to celebrate life. A poignant video set the stage for the night, capturing the horror of first hearing the dreaded diagnosis and the rigors of fighting the disease told by local folks who were able to offer hope to others.

“What you saw in that video were the faces of cancer and what you see tonight are the survivors of cancer,” said Cindy Sparkman, director of Marshall Cancer Care and herself a survivor. “I’m so happy you’re here and have come as far as you’ve come.”

Milestones were recognized. Chet Rowley of Arab had the oldest diagnosis. He first heard he had cancer in 1957. Rowley demonstrates his gratitude for surviving that long by writing letters to others with the disease, and, at the age of 88, has penned 5,000 letters to date, said his wife, Dee.

The most recently diagnosed was Bob Pickard, who heard the news in March, just two months ago. He was moved to tears at his first survivors’ dinner.

Keynote speaker for the night was Arab’s own Nancy Stewart, who has never been diagnosed with cancer, but has suffered the devastation of the disease and has battled her own crippling obstacles. She was celebrated for her instrumental work in making Marshall County’s own cancer treatment center a reality.

“What she gave was literally the gift of life for many people,” said Andrea Oliver, director of the Foundation for Marshall Medical Centers, as she introduced Stewart, who serves as vice-chairman of the Healthcare Authority and was on the board tasked with raising money to build the cancer center.

The effort began when the group noticed the “staggering” number of cancer diagnoses in Marshall County and began discussing the possibility of constructing a cancer facility locally that was state of the art, she said.

At the same time, Stewart’s sister was struggling with throat cancer in Tennessee. She lived 50 miles from Vanderbilt Hospital, where she drove daily for treatments. She told Stewart that she was tolerating the treatments but the travelling was wearing her out.

“I just wish it were closer to home,” Stewart recalled her sister saying.

When she realized “closer to home” had been chosen as the motto for raising money for Marshall Medical’s cancer center, she knew it was a “God thing.” She was all in.

“We didn’t approach any person that turned us down,” she said. “That’s very unusual.”

Stewart’s sister succumbed to the disease last year after fighting it for 28 years.

“She taught me to be a warrior because she was a warrior,” she said.

That lesson was invaluable when Stewart herself faced the battle of a lifetime. Sixteen years ago she was the lone survivor of a horrific car accident on Highway 69 that killed four young people.

“It’s a miracle that I’m standing here tonight,” she said.

Stewart was in a hospital bed for nine months, had eight surgeries and spent two years learning to walk again. She received more than 400 cards and letters, all of which she kept and still reads when she has a bad day. The message from one of them sticks with her and she shared it with the survivors listening to her story.

“Make the most of every hour, day, week,” she encouraged. “Know that you are a work in progress.”

“She may not be a cancer survivor, but she’s certainly a survivor,” Sparkman said of Stewart.

To learn more about Marshall Cancer Care Center, click here.

By Rose Myers, Marketing Coordinator for Marshall Medical Centers