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Survival stories big part of Relay for Life

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By Lyndsey Gilpin and Stephen Thomas

 HEBRON ESTATES - The 2011 Bullitt County Relay for Life experienced some of the best weather in its history this year. Most of the sunshine came from the smiling faces wearing purple shirts.

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Each year cancer survivors and their caregivers gather together, all with a similar sense of understanding for the others. They all get it.

Cancer can be found in family generation; In some cases the children become the caregivers. Sometimes married couples assist each other. One thing for sure, everyone is affected in some way by cancer, and everyone is hoping for a cure.

Here are a few of the stories that made up this year’s Relay for Life:

Bernetty Thompson, Donnie Shafner

When her teacher asked who knew someone with cancer, every hand in Hannah Thompson’s class - including her own - shot into the air. 

Hannah, 13, knows the effects of cancer. Her grandmother, Bernetty Thompson, is an 11-year survivor of breast cancer, and Hannah has been attending Relay for Life with her since the age of two. 

Bernetty has walked every year since she was diagnosed with cancer. 

“The first year, they pushed me around in a wheelchair,” she said. “But here I am now, by the grace of God.” 

Bernetty has eight children, 17 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren. “They’re why I keep coming back, they give me the energy to go on,” she said. 

Her son, Donnie Shafner, was diagnosed with prostate cancer about a year ago. He had walked with his mother for years, but never thought he would have to fight the disease himself. 

Shafner never had a prostate exam until went to the doctor for unrelated reasons. He was tested and told his levels were 4.8 nanogram per milliliters of blood. Normal levels are four or less. The doctor wasn’t concerned and after taking medicine, Shafner’s level decrease to 4.1. Then they discovered it was cancerous.

After treatment, the cancer disappeared, and Shafner had been in remission one year and one week the day of Relay for Life. He walked last year as well, a week after being released from the hospital. 

“There is nothing like this event,” he said. “The things they do for these people, it’s unreal. It means a lot to walk around the track.” 

Since his battle, Shafner has researched many types of cancers and stories of others who have battled the disease.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s all bad, but I’ve talked to others who have it so much worse than me.” 

Shafner advises all his friends and family to get tested, since he was the first male in his family to be diagnosed or even get his prostate tested.

“The earlier you catch it, the better you’ll be,” he said. He added that the worst fear of everyone the moment they are told “the C-word” is how bad it is and  how much of the body is affected. 

“The first few weeks are the hardest on the whole family,” he said. “I can’t thank God enough. I just smile because I feel so lucky.” 

Hannah is thankful that her family has defeated cancer, but has another major concern now: the fact that so many of her friends and acquaintances have been affected by the disease and may not share the same happy ending. 

“I want them to find a cure,” Hannah said, as her grandmother and uncle smiled proudly at her. “I don’t want future generations to suffer. I’ve witnessed it, that’s it, not even went through it, and it’s terrible.” 

Jim and Donna Eadens

Anyone can get cancer. It doesn’t matter who you are. Just ask the mayor of Hillview.

Jim Eadens has served many years as mayor, but last year was his toughest. While also working his day job, he had to campaign during an election year - all while battling third stage melanoma.

“It was stage three, but it was on the good side of three,” he added.

Jim was first diagnosed last year on April 1. He admitted the first two weeks following the news was the toughest.

“It kicked my butt,” he said. “I couldn’t concentrate on anything. You try to think about something, but I couldn’t think of anything else.”

The melanoma was located primarily in the upper back, but eventually spread into the lymph nodes. That led to a second surgery and chemotherapy treatments.

“There were a lot of ‘what-ifs’ to it,” said Jim’s wife, Donna. “The six months of chemo worked. It didn’t spread further.”

Jim also had his appendix removed, which delayed the chemo process. He missed 20 weeks of work during the healing.

Despite the setbacks, Jim eventually found an inner peace that helped him get through his situation.

“I turned it over to the Lord,” he said. “That’s when I got my peace about it. Your attitude means a lot.”

Jim’s big year officially ended just a week prior to the Relay, when his lab results turned up clean and he was declared cancer-free.

“We’re just excited to be here,” said Jim. “It’s a celebration for us. This time last year I felt so bad. Now it feels so good this year.”

Walking along with Jim and Donna was their grandson, Jayden, who Donna said was Jim’s other caregiver.

“He waited on him a lot,” Donna said.

“Man, he gave me a lot of encouragement,” Jim added.

Prior to his own experience, both Jim and Donna knew the importance of the Relay for Life. Jim’s Dad died before he was elected mayor. Donna’s brother died of leukemia at age 40.

For many years Jim attended the Relay as a mayor supporting his community. This year the community supported him as he walked with his fellow survivors.

“The main thing is that the Relay for Life is a sign of hope,” said Jim. “To see all these people that survived, it gives you a new lease on it.”

Deborah Skaggs, Coral McLean

Deborah Skaggs, 44, noticed a lump under her arm three years ago. She immediately went to the doctor and discovered that she had stage three breast cancer. 

After treatment, she went back to the doctor, thinking she might be close to  remission. She found that the cancer had spread into her bones and was now stage four. Following many surgeries and continuous chemotherapy, Skaggs has stopped treatment because her body is unresponsive. 

“It’s tough and I want to give up,” Skaggs said. “But I want to see my children graduate. I want to enjoy them while I can.”

Skaggs has three children, Coral, 19, Jade, 17, and Logan, 15. She raised them by herself while working three jobs. 

Coral attended Relay for Life as Skaggs’ primary caregiver. Working full-time and planning on starting nursing school in July, Coral takes care of her mother full-time as well. She takes off work one day a week to spend time with Skaggs. 

“We never got along until she got sick,” Coral said. “It was a slap in the face. It changed my perspective on everything.”

Skaggs attends the Relay every year, being very involved with the American Cancer Society. She also attends many classes that the ACS offers, from make-up tips to support groups.

Relay for Life has become very personal for Skaggs; her aunt and grandmother were diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after she was. 

“I’m all about a good cause,” Skaggs said. “Especially this, with people that know what I’m going through, they help guide me.”

Coral attends with her, also involved with the cause because she has many work friends whose lives have been affected by cancer.

Life has become much more meaningful to the family since first hearing the news of the diagnosis. They take spontaneous camping trips and jump in their pool in the middle of the day. 

“I’m not worried about the small things,” Skaggs said. “If my son wants to go somewhere, I don’t worry about how spotless the house is. I pick up and go.” 

Dynamics between Skaggs and her children have also drastically changed. Coral is now her mother’s main supporter, because her siblings become too upset to talk about the disease. When Skaggs wants to talk, Coral makes herself available.

“It’s difficult because I have always been quiet and not expressive,” she said. “But we have no secrets anymore. Everything is in the open.”

As she spoke of her mom’s decision to stop treatment, Coral’s lively tone dropped to a whisper. She paused for a moment before saying, “I hate leaving her, and I get scared every time I pick up the phone. I am just waiting for that call.”

Though it was a difficult conversation, both Coral and Skaggs kept a smile, symbolic of their strength, on their faces.

“Through all of this, I have learned that life isn’t over when you have cancer,” Skaggs said.