Stories of survival shows importance of cancer research

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By Stephen Thomas

   HEBRON ESTATES - With each passing year the number of familiar faces continues to grow at the Bullitt County Relay for Life.


The event gathers cancer survivors and their caregivers each year as the featured guests of the fundraising event for cancer awareness.

Survivors and caregivers kick off the event with victory laps on the North Bullitt track. Prior to that they are invited to gather for a free meal at the school’s gymnasium.

The smiles at each table represent the happiness each person feels to be a part of the Relay, to be alive and with their loved ones and friends celebrating life in a special way, at a special event.

Here are a few of the success stories involved in the 2013 Bullitt County Relay for Life:

The First One is Always the Best

Debbie O’Neal is originally from Hardin County and now resides in Jefferson County, but she decided the Bullitt County Relay for Life would be her first event.

O’Neal’s daughter, Erika Helm, works for Publishers Printing, along with O’Neal’s son and Helm’s husband. Publishers is always a major sponsor for the Bullitt County Relay.

In 2010 O’Neal was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, just after going through a divorce.

“I had the chemo, a double mastectomy, the whole nine yards,” O’Neal said. “I’ve had some serious physical issues during the process. Now I’m good, I’m healed, and I’m glad to be here.”

At age 50, and following her divorce, O’Neal credits her grown children as her support group throughout the ordeal, especially Helm.

“My daughter was my biggest caregiver,” she said. “She physically had to bring me food in bed, she tried to take care of my open wound. Just the love, the children being there, knowing they were there was more than anyone could ask for at this time.”

“We were always close, but now more,” said Helm. “When you feel like you might lose them they mean more to you.”

In her family, including four sisters, O’Neal said she was the first to experience cancer.

“My Mom and my siblings, if it wasn’t for all of them I wouldn’t have made it through this,” she said.

O’Neal  decided to attend Bullitt County’s Relay at Helm’s request. Helm had assisted with Publishers fundraisers in the past but was also attending her first Relay event.

“(My co-workers) did not prepare me for this at all,” Helm said. “It’s been wonderful.”

Mother and daughter said they would likely return to next year’s Relay.

“It’s overwhelming,” O’Neal said. “It’s been an amazing event.”

The Importance of Participation

Since his first Bulllitt County Relay event, Shepherdsville resident James Cundiff never misses it.

Cundiff survived prostate cancer and is going on his seventh year of cancer-free life.

He and his wife of 50 years, Nina, made it to the event just in time for the Survivors dinner prior to the Relay. They returned from Casey County, where they attended the funeral of James’ 94-year-old mother, Margie.

In fact, the couple planned to return to Casey County the next day, visiting family on what would have been Margie’s 95th birthday.

“We were planning on coming to the Relay all the time,” James said. 

James said his cancer was detected early and taken care of. He schedules annual physicals and his scores have remained well.

“I feel real good and everything is normal at age 72,” he said.

James has no history of cancer in his family. Nina, however, said her mother died from breast cancer in 1965 at age 47.

“They did a surgery but she didn’t make it,” Nina recalled. “We had a baby brother at the time aged four, when she passed away. We had six kids in the family.”

Nina’s current family members, including many of her grandsons, participate in the Relay. One grandson, Ian Cromer, raised the most Relay funds for Roby Elementary, joining a tradition of other family members.

It’s a long week for James and Nina, but the party they enjoy each year at the Bullitt County Relay for Life is one they won’t miss.

“As long as I can come to this every year, I’m okay,” said James.

“I thank God that I still have him,” Nina said.

Raising Awareness and Then Some

Maria Smith knew about the Bullitt County Relay for Life through her work at PNC Bank.

A Jefferson County resident, Smith participated in Bullitt because her co-worker, Stacey Bernard, was the event chairperson. She also knew about Bullitt County’s grand tradition.

Smith was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma about three years ago.

“That’s better than Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, there’s a better survival rate,” she said.

At first Smith experienced knots near her throat area and first assumed it to be strep.

“I decided to visit a doctor to get a jump on it,” she said.

The cancer was in State 3 when diagnosed. Smith said she may have had the lymphoma for up to 18 months prior to her diagnosis.

Prior to her diagnosis Smith was also caring for her mother, who died shortly before the news.

“I didn’t miss any work other than during treatments at the time,” she said.

Smith said both her cancer and the Relay have become “life-changers’ for her.

“I learned to let stuff go,” she said. “I don’t mull over small things any longer.”

Smith annually attends the Relay with her family of caregivers, including her husband, Joey. Their son, D.J., went to the grocery with to help out each week. Her daughter, Amber, was stationed in Iraq at the time of the diagnosis.

The family walks with Smith’s granddaughter, Brynlee.

“She was born the year I came clean,” Smith said.

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Smith was adopted. Because of that state’s law, Smith was unable to determine her family medical history.

“My goal is to help establish law that gives adopted citizens medical information for heath purposes and personal medical histories,” she said.