02/05/10 — Celebration of hope

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Celebration of hope

By Renee Carey
Published in News on February 5, 2010 1:46 PM

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Zoe McKinney, 7, gets a reassuring word from her father, Wade, after speaking to the gathering at the Relay for Life Kickoff Thursday night at First Pentecostal Holiness Church. Zoe, a student at Faith Christian Academy, suffered from brain cancer but has beaten the disease back.

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Jim King, who will serve as the honorary adult chairman for this year's Relay for Life, speaks at the event's annual kickoff banquet Thursday night. King, 78, suffers from prostate cancer but said he has found humor is the best medicine.

Zoe McKinney did not need any help telling her story to the crowd of more than 200 people who gathered to kick off the 2010 Relay for Life Thursday.

In fact, the 7-year-old Kid's Honorary Chairman insisted on it.

So she gathered up her notes, walked with purpose to the stage and prepared to talk to those gathered -- all adults, all focused on her.

No fear. No hesitation. No trembling voice.

All she needed was a little boost from a chair to reach the microphone and a steadying hand from her father, Wade.

It was a mirror really of how the Faith Christian Academy student described her battle with a brain tumor since her diagnosis a little more than two years ago.

Faith, hope and the love and support of her mom, Angela, and her father, as well as family and friends she met along the way, were the guiding forces that got her to this point, to a time when there was less talk about the disease and more talk about recovery and the next steps.

She spoke briefly of her time at the University of North Carolina Children's Hospital and of the good work being done there -- all because, she said, of the research, which has "made it possible for hospitals like UNC to do good work in the field of cancer."

That's why she hopes that those who have supported Relay for Life in the past will continue to do so this year, Zoe said.

She also talked about victories -- ribbons and trophies she has won as an equestrian competitor, beating her dad at Wii and being on the honor roll before and after her diagnosis.

But she also talked about faith and hope and the knowledge, at age 7, that she had "God's loving hand upon my life."

She thanked her mom, her dad and her sisters, Brittney, 17, and Morgan, 13, as well as her grandparents for being there for her during the tough times.

But Zoe's story was not really about the hard parts of the journey.

After urging those present to continue to support the research and efforts that saved her life, she listed the positives, the new life she has discovered because of her cancer fight.

And it was then that the little girl came out -- hiding behind the mask of maturity that comes with fighting a battle no 7-year-old should have to fight.

Because of cancer, she said, she has discovered horses.

"It was supposed to help my balance and strength, but it turned into a hobby," she said, a proud grin creeping onto her face. "I bet my mom and dad never saw that coming."

Later, she would share that her favorite horse at the Avalon Stables in Saulston is "Tater," a brief glimpse of the little girl who has come so far in a fight that has crippled many adults.

And as she ended her speech to those gathered Thursday, Zoe reached out to those in the audience who were facing a battle like her own -- those who were just beginning to deal with their cancer diagnosis.

"I know you need a friend to lean on and an ear to listen," she said.

And, Zoe promised, she will be there.

It is exactly because of children like Zoe that the Relay's Adult Honorary Chairman Jim King relays.

It was why on a day when the 78-year-old had just finished his own chemotherapy treatment he put on his red sport coat and tie and came to speak to those who had pledged their commitment to put an end to the disease.

It was why on this day, although having just lost a son, Mark, to cancer he decided to bring a message about the future and why the annual event matters so much to so many.

It is why his own story of survival had to be mixed with anecdotes and humor to prove a point to those who might not understand why the money they raise is so vital.

He began with a story about a friend, Helen Britt of Faison, who was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s after a fall while on the job at Southern Produce.

"That fall saved her life," he said.

Mrs. Britt was the first person in Wayne County to receive chemotherapy -- and that was more than 20 years ago, he said.

"What does that tell you? King said. "What we are talking about is research."

He told a hard story, too, one without such a happy ending.

It began with a father who took his son to Immediate Care -- a son who did not believe in doctors and who tended to ignore any health concerns.

It was there, King said, that he learned his son had pneumonia -- and cancer.

"The first thing I was thinking was "what do I do now?" he said.

That first "thing" was a call to Dr. Jim Atkins, oncologist and longtime supporter, who took on the new patient.

Then came the tough news -- Mark had Stage 4 cancer.

"We came home, and he and I together would take treatments," King said.

But while the dad is still fighting, Mark King lost his battle with the disease this past June -- just about a year after that initial diagnosis.

It would have been easy for his father to give up, to think there was no reason to keep fighting. But even with the grief of a life he could not save and his own continuing battle with cancer, King said he takes comfort in the stories of Caleb Whitfield, "Super Cooper" Bryan and Zoe, young people who are alive and winning their battles because of the money raised for the American Cancer Society.

"Today they are (celebrating more birthdays) and that makes my heart feel good because that is research," he said.

And it is hope, King added.

Hope that there will be no more sons and daughters lost.

Hope that a cure is on the horizon.

Hope that there will be more birthdays.

And as he closed his remarks, he reminded the Relay for Life volunteers that funding that research that will save more lives is what they are striving for as they begin their 2010 campaign.

"Get out there and work as hard as you can," he said.

He said later he takes his own life one day at a time, one fight at a time.

He hopes that he will be with those who will gather May 21-22 at Wayne Community College.

"God willing," he said.