Richard Yearwood was diagnosed with melanoma in 1978.

Raising his hand Thursday night when his number was called in a prize drawing, he was celebrating more than what would be in the gift bag.

He was also the longest cancer survivor at the 4th annual Southeast Cancer Care survivor dinner, with 39 years cancer-free, announced Dr. Samer Kasbari, emcee for the evening.

From Gastonia, Yearwood had enlisted in the Air Force in 1966. He spent 17 years active duty at Seymour Johnson Air Force, retiring in 1988, and another 21 in the reserves.

"Who was president in 1978?" he tried to recall afterward, as he shared memories of being diagnosed with skin cancer. That would be Jimmy Carter.

He explained that when he was treated in Bethesda, Maryland, the physician who did his operation was the president's doctor at that time.

"That's what he said," Yearwood said.

Yearwood was among the fortunate. The surgery, although invasive and rendering his right side numb to this day, was a success.

"They got it so far in advance that I had to have no treatment but I had to go back every six months," the 69-year-old said. "When the average life span when I was diagnosed was five years, I have lived 34 years longer than I should have."

Great strides are being made every day in the field, said Dr. Kasbari, a physician at Southeastern Medical Oncology Center. The number of cancer survivors in the U.S. is currently over 15 million, he said.

"We're getting better because of research, clinical trials, determination of doctors, but nobody is going to be more determined than the patients themselves," he said.

His partner at the practice, Dr. James Atkins, agreed. "It's hard to believe the progress that's been made in oncology the last couple of decades. But we see it every day," he said. "It's exciting for us because we love to see the changes that have happened and the improvements over the years."

An outgrowth of their work at SMOC has been forming a non-profit to support cancer patients in ways beyond medical treatments.

Southeastern Cancer Care was launched several years ago to help patients east of I-95 with such daily needs as gas and groceries, utilities and rent.

Fundraising efforts, like the Cures for the Colors 5K and one-mile walk/run planned for May 6 at Wayne Community College, have been very successful. The first year, in 2012, nearly $12,000 was generated, jumping to $103,000 the next year. It has steadily climbed and is expected to continue, Dr. Kasbari said.

"What's unique about it, it doesn't have employees, it doesn't have a CEO. Nobody gets paid," he said, crediting "volunteers who want to see it succeed."

Allison Thomas, a preschool speech pathologist, was on the receiving end of the SCC efforts five years ago when she "went into the hospital with appendicitis and came out with Stage 4 colon cancer," she said.

The mother of three boys told how the financial support filled in some gaps.

"Cancer is expensive. It's not cheap. And when you're trying to work full-time, there's a lot of things that have to come out of pocket that insurance doesn't cover -- traveling, people struggling with utility bills, with gas and food, prescriptions, it adds up very quickly," she said. "Once you're diagnosed you're automatically a cancer survivor. You have to have a purpose in what you're fighting.

"I feel like I'm fighting for my three little boys and my husband."

One of the youngest survivors -- being diagnosed at four weeks old -- was also among the 600 at the dinner.

Piper Wilhide, diagnosed in 2012 with stage 3 intermediate risk neuroblastoma, had a tumor lodged between her spine and heart.

Now 4, Thursday evening she was plucked from the audience to draw tickets for the overflowing table of donated prizes.

The event fell on National Doctor's Day, Dr. Kasbari said, but the payoff for the physicians was to look out over the crowd at the sea of survivor's faces.

"There's nothing more exciting, nothing better than seeing you all here," he said. "This is the best gift as a doctor for myself and three other partners.

"That's our gift, more survivors, the true heroes, the true fighters."