By Joshua Winata
The Cove Herald
Over dinner, Sandra Shepherd and Triss Lemire reminisced about hair loss.
It wasn’t the most conventional topic for table conversation between two strangers who had just met. But these women had one thing in common: both are breast cancer survivors, and at the Copperas Cove Relay For Life Cancer Survivors’ Dinner, everyone had a story to share.
Lemire recalled the pang of reality that set in as she pulled clumps of hair from her scalp in the shower and scooped them out of the drain by the handful, tears pouring down her face.
But from that memory, she was also able to find one brief moment of humor.
“I told my husband to shave the sides off first and see how it looks in a mohawk,” joked Lemire, who has been diagnosed with cancer twice since 1991.
The survivors’ dinner, held at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8577 on Friday, gave former cancer patients an opportunity to candidly share their experiences with others who understood and responded, not with pity, but with empathy.
Featured speaker Mike DeHart, a realtor in Killeen who was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer of the throat and tongue last January, found a comedic approach to his own battle with cancer, managing to poking morbid fun at the deadening of his saliva glands, weight loss, memory deterioration and hair loss caused by numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“Turn out all the lights, and I’ll glow in the dark,” he joked.
Humor was one way to defiantly respond to the harrowing ordeal, but DeHart also acknowledged the realities of suffering and pain caused by cancer. He offered his support to those still struggling with the disease and urged patients who have been diagnosed to have faith and persevere.
“I will pick you up, take you, and I will sit there with you,” DeHart said. “It’s a terrible, bad thing, but you can beat it. I’m the biggest wimp you ever saw in your life, and if I can do it, you can do it.”
For Cove resident John Sweet, an eight-year survivor of prostate cancer, sharing experiences with fellow cancer patients was “very enlightening.” Sweet, who had never been to any cancer survivors events before, said he was nervous about coming to the dinner, but he’s glad he did.
“People don’t talk about it much,” said Sweet. “The feeling in there was great. Everybody kind of pulled together. It made me feel good, it really did.”
The home-cooked meal was provided by the Ladies Auxiliary of VFW Post 8577, and musical performances were given by local vocalist Jill Charles and the Temple-based barbershop quartet Notable Gentlemen.
Thirty cancer survivors attended the dinner, each accompanied by a guest or caregiver. Relay For Life Chairwoman Barbara Mims, who was diangosed with colon cancer five years ago, said this is the first dinner held in Copperas Cove to honor survivors and show that cancer can be beaten.
“Tonight we’re going to be celebrating, we’re going to be remembering and on May 9, we’re going to fight back,” Mims told attendees, referencing this year’s Relay For Life theme of “Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back!” “We’re going to fight back by raising money to help find a cure for cancer. By the looks of the crowd tonight, I can see the money that we are raising is making a difference.”
She invited all cancer survivors to wear purple and join in the opening lap reserved for cancer survivors during next month’s Relay For Life. So far, 33 teams have registered to participate in the event.
The evening ended with a candlelight ceremony to recognize the “heroes” who have survived the struggle with cancer. The darkened room was slowly illuminated as individuals lined up and lit their candles from one flame, a representation of unity and togetherness, Mims said.
Each person took turns stating what type of cancer they had and how long they had battled with the illness, with responses ranging from three months to 35 years.
“Look around the room and see that we’re making progress. We’re making progress every day,” said Relay For Life Survivor Chairwoman Nita Higgins, who herself has battled lymphoma, leukemia and breast cancer for 11 years. “It’s not the bad, bad word it used to be. It’s treatable. We’re going to fight to the end, so we know there is hope.”
Shepherd, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, has participated in the Relay For Life for nine years for just that reason. This year she will be walking in both the Copperas Cove and Killeen events, which are held on consecutive weekends.
“The fight is still on because you’ve got to find that cure. Relaying brings up awareness as well as money for cancer research to help people that cannot afford to have mammograms. It helps,” Shepherd said. “Cancer before was such an enigma, but now when you walk on the field...you know that your fight is not in vain, so you know your relay is worth it.”
Contact Joshua Winata at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7476
Relay For Life
from 7 p.m., Friday, May 9
to 7 a.m., Saturday, May 10
S.C. Lee Jr. High School
For more information, contact Barbara Mims at (254) 547-5754.
All proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.