05/21/10 — Celebrating survival

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Celebrating survival

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on May 21, 2010 1:46 PM

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Troy Herring

Mariya Lewis, 7, lights a candle with her father, Greg Lewis, and her mother, Beyanka Lewis, at the 17th annual Relay for Life cancer survivors banquet. Beyanka, a cancer survivor from Pikeville, is the Honorary Heart for the banquet.

They came to celebrate, the more than 600 people who packed First Pentecostal Holiness Church Thursday night.

And while there were balloons, birthday cupcakes, party hats and presents, the cancer survivors and caregivers as well as the Relay for Life volunteers who gathered there understood that the event was more than just a party.

For them, it was a chance to mark another day in their fights against cancer -- and to thank those who have been there along the way.

The evening did not go off without a hitch. A last-minute illness changed the program, but that did not stop those who gathered from remembering the faith, courage, love and family that helped them get through their battles -- some of which are continuing.

Because, they said, when you are a cancer survivor, you understand more keenly than ever what really matters and you learn to deal with what comes with the courage that goes along with not knowing how it will turn out.

So they clapped, sang along and raised their arms in thanks when Tyra Jones and her mother, Audrey Jordan, sang "Can't Give Up Now."

And they laughed at master of ceremonies Jimmy Ford's jokes and nodded their heads in agreement with a chorus of amens when he talked about faith, love and hope.

They made sure to greet each other warmly and did not spare hugs as they reunited with old friends and new best friends.

They made sure their voices were heard when Dr. Jim Atkins and Tiffany Albertson asked them to sing along to "Amazing Grace."

And, they did not wait for event organizer and Relay for Life volunteer Donna Thompson to tell them they could eat their cupcakes, each featuring a birthday candle and a small insignia for a specific kind of cancer.

And then, later, after honorary children's chairman for Relay Zoe McKinney held the bowl while Ford pulled the raffle tickets and the group enjoyed a meal provided by Sunburst Foods of Goldsboro, Wilbur's Barbecue and Saulston United Methodist Church, they listened intently as the master of ceremonies called for those who wanted to to stand up and tell their stories.

Annie Edmundson of Mount Olive was first. The 17-year survivor of ovarian cancer and seven-year survivor of melanoma wanted those who were there with her to know that faith and gratitude are what got her through.

"I thank God for every day I can get up and see the sunrise and every day that I can go to bed at night," she said, her voice strong and sure.

Berry Walker addressed the crowd, too, mostly to ask for prayers for his 91-year-old brother, Kenneth Walker, who had just received a cancer diagnosis.

He reminded those present of the power of prayer, adding that he has a grandson who was diagnosed with leukemia at 2, and who is 27 today.

Donna Lanier of Goldsboro knows what it means to have hope.

She is celebrating her fourth year of victory in her battle against leukemia.

Being at the cancer survivors banquet has been part of what has kept her strong, she said.

"Nobody is going to tell me that prayer does not work," she said. "Keep on praying and believeing, because it works. ... And keep on coming here. I have, all four years."

Those who gathered also thanked those who had stood by their sides along the way -- family, friends, churches and the caregivers from Southeastern Medical Oncology Center and Wayne Radiation Oncology -- both of whom sponsored the evening's festivities and whose employees were among the many volunteers who served the evening meal.

Without them, said Shelley Flores of Goldsboro, she would not have been able to get through her fight.

Helen Rose of Goldsboro thanked those who have been there, too, as she continues her fight against newly diagnosed breast cancer. She has already been through this once, with her husband, Wayne, whom she lost last year.

She can never repay the kindness of those who stood by her during her husband's battle, and whom she knows will be there for her own.

But perhaps the most poignant of the thanks that were given were by Beyanka Lewis, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years at age 33.

She turned to thank her husband, Greg, whom she said was with her every step of the way, and her daughter, Mariya, 7, part of the reason she fought so hard.

"(He) was with me through the chemotherapy, every treatment," she told the crowd.

"I love you," she said to him and to her little girl.

Greg remembers the day when he first heard his wife had cancer.

"My mother had passed of cancer, a brain, tumor," he said. "And that is the first thing that came to my head, that, and prayer."

And as the group finished the evening by lighting candles and listening to Susan Scott's rendition of "One Moment in Time," more prayers were said, and more blessings wished.

And those gathered remembered once again that they were there to celebrate life -- and second chances.

"I stand in awe of survivors," Mrs. Thompson said. "I love you all."