05/20/11 — Survivor shares stories of hope and laughter

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Survivor shares stories of hope and laughter

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on May 20, 2011 1:46 PM

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The sun shines on keynote speaker Wayne Williams' face through the windows of First Pentecostal Holiness Church at the Relay for Life Survivors' Banquet.

The gymnasium at First Pentecostal Holiness Church was filled to capacity Thursday evening -- standing room only.

But no one complained about not having a seat or being crowded around the 30 or so tables that filled the room, because, at the Relay for Life Survivors Banquet, every other filled seat means another person has defeated cancer for another year.

"Every year our number of survivors grows," said Donna Thompson, Survivors Banquet chairperson. "And that's such a wonderful problem to have."

The event, in its 18th year, was sponsored by Southeastern Medical Oncology Center and Wayne Radiation Oncology and fed and entertained 600 people, half of them cancer survivors. The banquet featured door prizes, entertainment and a special keynote speech from Wayne Williams, who was diagnosed in December 2004 with lymphoma.

Williams, who retired from school administration in 2000 after serving as principal at Rosewood High School, cleverly fused hopeful and uplifting messages with humor at the event, which organizers called a celebration of all those who had or were struggling with the disease and their loved ones.

Williams told of how Dr. James Atkins told him of his diagnosis, and his immediate question: What caused this?

"Dr. Atkins looked right at me and said 'OGK,' " which Williams explained meant "Only God Knows."

Williams recalled how he began chemotherapy and depended, more than ever, on his friends, family and church family as they kept him laughing, even as his concerns about losing his hair grew.

"One person in church said he would have to start wearing sunglasses because of the reflection from my bald spot, and the women at church would rub my head. That was nice. The jokes made me feel at ease," he said.

Williams noted that, while treatment was decidedly not a fun experience, he was lucky to have never gotten physically sick and continued to work as a flight attendant, a job he took following his retirement to travel and to meet new people.

He then returned to education to teach in the GED program at Wayne Community College before becoming a host at IHOP, where, again, he was free to meet and talk with new people.

He invoked David Letterman's Top Ten list in pointing out the 10 best ways to know you are a cancer survivor, saying that the most trivial occurrences that many take for granted are reasons for excitement in the life of someone who has been touched by cancer. Weight gain, using a toothbrush for something other than combing your hair and even the sound of the alarm clock in the morning, he said, were all reminders to a survivor that cancer had been held off for yet another day.

As a six-year survivor in 2010, Williams already had gained appreciation for every day he was given and had been turning in good test results when a chest x-ray revealed he, again, had the "C word," which Williams said, time and time again, meant "challenge" to him.

No stranger to fighting the disease, Williams said he took to maintenance treatments with a "whatever it takes" attitude as he again continued to battle the cancer into remission.

His cancer is now controlled and he treasures every day as a gift and an opportunity to fight for tomorrow.

He will be joined tonight by 1,543 participants on 103 teams in the 2011 Relay For Life of Wayne County. The survivors' lap is at 6 p.m. and as of Friday morning, the American Cancer Society website reported $21,076 had been raised for cancer research.