02/04/11 — Faith, love and Relay

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Faith, love and Relay

By Renee Carey
Published in News on February 4, 2011 1:46 PM

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Jenifer Williford, mother of children's honorary co-chairman Layla Williford, speaks about her family's cancer journey Thursday during the 2011 Relay for Life Kickoff Banquet.

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Audience members put their hands on one another in prayer along with Relay adult co-chairman Kem Lancaster, front, at the 2011 kickoff banquet. The evening was full of hope, courage and tears as those present talked about cancer battles, victories and faith.

The 2011 Relay for Life Kickoff Banquet started with a list of superlatives -- No. 1 in money raised in North Carolina, No. 11 for most money raised in the nation, a new designation as one of 16 "mega-Relays" in the world and a special honor for one of their own.

Next came the heart -- the stories of three people who will be the honorary co-chairmen at this year's event -- Layla Williford, Linda Gurganus and Kem Lancaster -- and how their lives have been altered forever because of cancer.

And it ended in a community's flourish of faith -- that a mother's little girl would find her miracle, that an eight-year cancer survivor will win yet another fight and that a mom who is determined to help others through her own brave battle will beat the odds, and also take research one step closer to a cure.

There were cheers when Dr. Lee Adams was surprised mid-bite with a specially created honor for his decades of service to the Relay for Life effort -- the Relay Pioneer Award.

And there were nods of agreement when he reminded everyone there that the miracle of the Wayne County effort was not just the money raised, but the support, fellowship and family the event created.

There was wild applause when American Cancer Society officials announced that Wayne County's event had earned the "mega event" designation -- and a warm response when national Relay for Life vice president Reule Johnson congratulated those in attendance for the example they have set for others.

But there were tears, too, as the more than 270 people in attendance at First Pentecostal Holiness Church heard the stories from their honorary co-chairmen -- and remembered just exactly why they plan for a year, raise money with such fervor and why their efforts really matter.

And it all started with a story about a little girl.

Layla Williford could not stick out the banquet, her mother, Jenifer, told those gathered as she prepared to share the story of her daughter's multi-year battle with brain cancer.

It was 7:30 p.m. -- and the 2 1/2-year-old was ready for her crib and made sure her mom and father, Weldon, knew it.

It was just another example of her spirit, her mother said, and another sign of the strength and determination that have been her hallmarks since her family embarked on their journey to beat cancer.

And that road has been a long one, her mother said.

"Layla is an awesome little girl," Jenifer said. "She is just one of those spirits that never gives up. I am so proud to be her mommy."

Jenifer said Layla's cancer journey began when she was 18 months old and started to have problems that her parents -- and doctors -- had trouble diagnosing.

After months of trips to hospitals and watching their daughter slip, Weldon and Jenifer knew they had to keep pushing, keep reaching for an answer.

In December 2009, they got the first one -- an MRI that suggested that there were lesions that were growing. And then a scary diagnosis -- an aggressive and rare form of brain cancer.

"I told my dad (the day of Layla's brain surgery) that the only thing I could handle that day was a miracle," Jenifer said.

And when the doctor came out to deliver the news, she said she knew she was headed for a fight.

"No one had to tell me my little girl had cancer," she said.

There have been surgeries, treatments, successes and setbacks -- all of the tears and miracles of a cancer battle.

"I tell you all this detail because I want you to know how happy and excited I am to tell you that my little girl is still here, still in the fight and still has a chance," Jenifer said.

An April 2010 trip to Boston brought a new treatment plan and another chance to think about faith and hope.

"One of the things I have learned through this is that life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, but about learning to dance in the rain," Jenifer said.

And then came a Dec. 17 heartbreak, news that of a recurrence -- and this time the cancer is in Layla's spine.

Doctors have told Jenifer and Weldon that there is not much more they can do for Layla and that it is time to prepare to say goodbye.

"We cried all the way home," Jenifer said.

But this is just another cloud in a journey that has had plenty of sunshine, too, Jenifer said, most of which have come from their young daughter's courage.

So, they are still trying treatments and still hoping that they can keep Layla around for as long as possible -- never giving up because their daughter has never given up. A new drug has brought some hope that possibly Weldon, Jenifer and Layla's extended family and friends will have her around for a few more years.

"It is not a cure, but it will buy us some time," her mother said.

And through it all, Jenifer and her husband have learned a couple of lessons from Layla -- about living life without fear, about faith, about hope and about courage.

And they have new priorities, too, Layla's mommy said.

"Weldon and I decided a long time ago that we were not going to let cancer get us down," she said. "If Layla wakes up every single morning with a smile on her face, we can get through this."

And behind the tears, the smiles and the hope is faith -- that whatever is meant to happen will and that the future is in the right hands.

"We are incredibly thankful for where we are and that we still have a fight," Jenifer said.

Layla is not the only one still battling.

Linda Gurganus, an eight-year breast cancer survivor, is fighting, too -- again.

After beating back a tumor in her right breast, she is now battling one in her left -- and winning.

Her journey has been one of disbelief, shock and hope and faith, while surrounded by a dedicated family and friends and fellow survivors who have shown her the way from sadness and fear to courage, determination and priorities.

"Cancer will make your family and God the most important thing in your life," she said. "And the friendships I have made have been priceless -- and they will be forever."

She said she was scared when she went through her first surgery -- and was frightened on the first day of chemotherapy, but Linda said she has made it through her journey by remembering her faith and trusting the love of her family, friends and God.

She hopes that her efforts with Relay will help those who come along next -- just as the money raised for research in the past has helped her.

"If it were not for that research," she said. "I would not be where I am today. Research has made it possible for us to be longer survivors and to spend more time with our families."

Kem Lancaster is determined that her battle with rectal cancer will not just be a victory against her disease, but a chance for doctors to try out various treatment protocols, and to find the one that will save someone else's life, too, some day.

She said cancer took her by surprise. Even though she had been sick for a number of months, she kept dismissing away the symptoms.

"I was just like one of the women who just keeps going and going," Kem said. "I was too busy. I did not have time to go to the doctor."

When she got her diagnosis of rectal cancer, she said she was scared, but determined that she would know what her chances and her options were.

"To get through this, I had to live in reality," Kem said.

And when she heard her possibilities, she told her doctor, "I just want to live."

And so began a fight that took her through surgeries, experimental treatments, new drugs and pain and complications -- all in the name of trying anything and everything to make sure she could be there for her husband and her two sons.

Kem hoped, she said, that perhaps one of the weapons she was using to fight her cancer might be the key to helping someone else later.

"I told them to sign me up for everything," she said. "I wanted to know that I had contributed something."

And through it all -- the ups and downs of treatment and recovery -- Kem said it is her family's strength and faith that have kept her strong -- even when she learned that one of her sons was in a serious car accident.

Her own strength and successes as well as his strong recovery have taught her that making it through a trial in life requires little more than faith and trust.

"Cancer is not a death sentence," she said. "I look at me having cancer as just the beginning of whatever else is going to be. I already know my God is greater than any of this other junk."

So, as the evening ended, those in attendance left their seats, put their hands out to one another and prayed -- for strength, for hope, for faith -- and for the courage to recognize that a battle begins with a leap of faith and courage and a belief in a greater power, a greater plan.

And as the group prayed with minister John Howard, they blew out candles on birthday cupcakes -- a sign that there would be more birthdays, more stories, more tears and more victories.