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Courage packed into a purple shirt

By Kelly Corbett
Published in News on May 20, 2012 1:50 AM

Cancer survivors walk the Survivors' Lap at the start of the Relay for Life on Friday at the Wayne County Fairgrounds.

Their stories are many, their experiences diverse, but those who made their way around the track for the opening Survivors Lap at the 2012 Relay for Life had two qualities in common -- faith and perseverance.

For Amanda Odom, of Goldsboro, Friday's lap was not just about winning her battle over breast cancer. It was also about being thankful that she did not put off a routine mammogram four years ago.

"I was busy at work and I was about to put it off that year," she said. "By the grace of God, I did not. For women, particularly, it's very important to get a mammogram."

Breast cancer runs in Ms. Odom's family. She knows the importance of preventative care because both her mother and older sister had breast cancer.

Now, a survivor of stage three breast cancer, the 52-year-old remembers back to when she went through nine months of radiation and three of chemotherapy.

"It was small, but it was a very aggressive cancer," Ms. Odom said.

And now, after treatments and worry, setbacks and victories, Ms. Odom says she has learned something -- about cancer, and about life.

"Cancer is not the worst thing in the world that can happen," she said, adding that while it is scary to hear the diagnosis of cancer, it is not a death sentence.

So, she heads back for her six-month checkups every year, and waits, and hopes that she will not have to do battle again.

"You never know what's going to happen, how it's going to turn out," she said.

But as uncertain as the future might be, Ms. Odom knows that she has something to celebrate right now.

"I'm still here," she said.

Willie Sutton Jr., 72, did not have any suspicions he had cancer -- that is, until he got the results of his prostate specific antigen (PSA) screening test.

"Most of the time with a high PSA, you do have prostate cancer," he said. "Once I found out that I had it, I had my prostate removed and I had radiation after because I still had a high PSA."

It has now been four years since the surgery, and Sutton only goes back for routine check-ups once a year.

He said he got through his battle with a lot of support -- and faith.

"In the operation room, I asked the Lord to take care of me," he said. "And he did. I got through it with the man above."

Sutton walked the lap with some of his biggest cheerleaders -- his family.

He said he is lucky and advises others like him to make sure they do their screenings faithfully.

"The best advice that you can give is just to make sure you keep a regular check-up because sometimes they don't catch it early enough," he said.

LaDelle Smothers circled the Wayne County Fairgrounds track with her mother, Bonnie Strickland by her side.

Now a five-year survivor, Mrs. Smothers was not a likely cancer patient.

The Goldsboro resident had no risk factors to make her think there was a reason to worry.

Yet, in March 2007, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at the age of 34.

"Even though I was a nurse, this was something new for me," Mrs. Smothers said.

During a self-check, she said she felt something and decided to go to the doctor. At first, the doctors did not think it was anything. But still not feeling quite sure, she said she persisted, and the doctor sent her to get an ultrasound and mammogram to be safe.

"Honestly, it was caught in the nick of time," Mrs. Smothers said. "You have to follow your instincts."

Now, the 39-year-old and nurse of 16 years, also walks in honor of her mother-in-law, Marlys Smothers.

The two battled breast cancer together, until her mother-in-law succumbed to the disease.

"She kind of paved the way to go through," Mrs. Smothers said.

For Pat Herring, who has just recently begun his battle with colon cancer after an April diagnosis, the lap marked his first as a survivor.

"I've been coming every since they've been having it. It feels different this year," he said. "It's very humbling experiencing this from the other side of it."

He said an early screening likely saved his life, catching his cancer at a very early stage.

"The secret is colonoscopies at 50. You get to that age, you need to have it," he said.

For Charles Thomas, his walk was is to celebrate his own victory.

He remembers having a colonoscopy and soon after receiving the diagnosis -- colon cancer.

"It was scary," said his wife, Donna.

In his case, chemotherapy or radiation proved unnecessary and his illness was handled by surgery.

"I had to have no treatments, luckily," he said. "I just had to go back for check-ups."

The couple were engaged at the time, so they navigated the hard road together.

"We got married Dec. 1, 2006," Mrs.. Thomas said.

For the most part, Thomas is doing well, he said, except for some occasional tiredness.

But he is keenly aware that others have not been so lucky.

That's why the Thomases were there Friday night.

"I had a brother," Thomas started to explain, a catch in his throat.

"He died last year with lung cancer," his wife said.

Nelson Thomas was 72. He passed away after a nearly five-year battle, she said.

For Becky Herring, Friday's lap was part of a new tradition.

She had never been to a Relay prior to being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"I have my reason to come now," she said. "And I hope to make many many more. It's wonderful. It's awesome. It's very emotional."

Lona Flowers and her daughter, Laura Braswell, had two reasons to celebrate at this year's Survivors' Lap.

Mrs. Flowers is a two-year breast cancer survivor, while Mrs. Braswell is marking her seventh year free of stage four non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Mrs. Braswell, who has been active in Relay since she was diagnosed, said she Relays not just for her mother and herself, but for her family and friends who are still fighting.

But on Friday, that walk around the track was a victory lap.

"It's awesome," she said. "Every day you take another step, it's awesome."