The Reason Behind Philanthropic Gifts

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By DeDe DeStefano, Staff Writer

Our patients are inspirational, courageous fighters. With each one, I am reminded of the journey I made alongside my mother 11 years ago, as if it were yesterday. Each July we celebrate the end of her treatment as much as we do the day she was born.

On Feb. 18, I had the opportunity to work at an M. D. Anderson event honoring cancer patients everywhere -- celebrating with those who survived their cancer and mourning with family and friends of those who did not. Some of these patients are my colleagues. Some are friends. And some I'd just met. Some told their stories. Others listened and applauded. Everyone cried.

These patients are my heroes. They are why I love my job. Although I am not in direct patient care, I have the honor of telling their stories. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up and worry about them, just like I know their care teams do, and I think it's like that with everyone here.

The evening's purpose was to thank the philanthropic donors who have made a difference in the lives of our patients and announce that M. D. Anderson is raising $1 billion to continue that work. Although the celebration thanked donors, the focus was not on the donors themselves, but rather the reason behind the gifts. Testimony after testimony was given -- some planned, others not. From Jeff Wigbels, a non-smoking athlete who learned he had stage IV metastatic lung cancer the day before his son was born, to "America's Got Talent" lymphoma survivor Barbara Padilla, whose operatic voice brought down the house, there was not a dry eye in the room.

In his opening remarks, M. D. Anderson President John Mendelsohn, M.D., paid tribute to Bob Mosbacher, who recently lost his battle with cancer. Mosbacher was the only person to chair M. D. Anderson's Board of Visitors twice. "Bob worked hard to bring national attention and critically needed resources to M. D. Anderson, and did so with the modesty and quiet charm for which he is so admired. He was a great personal friend to Anne and me, and we miss him terribly," he told the audience, which included members of Mr. Mosbacher's family.

Originally slated to serve as master of ceremonies, CNN's Sanjay Gupta, M.D., had to regretfully cancel due to his participation in the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. Former Miss America Phyllis George stepped in graciously and offered her own personal story with the institution, though we did not know she had one when we asked her to take part. A dear friend was misdiagnosed elsewhere (twice) and ultimately came to M. D. Anderson, where he survived six years. "If he had come to M. D. Anderson first, I have no doubt he'd still be alive today," she said tearfully. She then paid tribute to the patients in the room whose stories were told in the campaign brochure, including Patsy Bodie who struggled with pancreatic cancer for 10 years. The entire room of 600 held a moment of silence for Patsy, who lost her battle with the disease 22 days before the event.    

The tribute continued with the spectacular voices of the Houston Five Tenors' performance of "Amazing Grace" joined by St. Thomas' Episcopal School Pipe Band's bagpipes.

Memorial Drive Presbyterian senior pastor Rev. Dave Peterson offered his own testimonial before delivering the invocation. He spoke about his young daughter who, just weeks after getting married, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She came to M. D. Anderson for treatment.

After dinner, Board of Visitors Chair Nancy Loeffler welcomed board and Advance Team members and campaign chair Harry Longwell encouraged guests to spread the word about the need for philanthropic funding for cancer research programs.

After an extraordinary performance of "Ave Maria" by Barbara Padilla, eight patients on eight miniature stages around the room's perimeter gave a moving tribute to cancer patients everywhere as the program's finale. One by one, they were spotlighted, each telling his or her story and each physically striking out the word "cancer" on a screen behind him or her. Barbara Padilla struck hers out on the main ballroom stage and gave a closing rendition of "The Prayer" with one of the five tenors, Ken Gayle.

All in all, it was an evening of hope. Not everyone has survived cancer, but everyone had such an extraordinary story of what this terrible disease does. So many people are fighting cancer, and so many more are fighting with all they have to cure it, whether that means in a lab, in a clinic or with a checkbook.

It was hopeful and moving and quite honestly one of the best evenings I've ever had the privilege to be a part. I think everyone left the event with an understanding of the urgency of the problem of cancer and the compelling desire to do more.

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These are the stories of the eight finale participants.

Victoria Johnson

Victoria Johnson is a survivor of more than 11 years of stage IV breast cancer with metastases to all major organs, including her brain. After being extremely conscientious for years about annual mammograms and additional precautionary ultrasounds, Victoria was diagnosed with the late-stage cancer and told that she had approximately 1½ years to live. Searching for hope, Victoria came to M. D. Anderson. She has since had seven brain tumors successfully removed and credits ongoing Herceptin® treatments with enabling her to live a full life. Victoria has repeatedly given her awe-inspiring testimonial to audiences at M. D. Anderson events. Passionate about enjoying each cherished day, she appeared in the CNN video "Taming the Beast," quoting her grandmother: "It's time to use the good china. Enjoy life!"

Nikita Robinson

An M. D. Anderson employee for five years, Nikita is a senior research coordinator in the Department of Health Disparities. She also is a four-year colon cancer survivor and a contributing member of the Employee Cancer Support Group. Nikita says her illness has influenced her perspective of her work, and she is eager to educate others about the institution. Within months of diagnosis, her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer and her grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Neither survived. Nikita says that her insight gained as a patient and employee enabled her to be a vessel of support for her loved ones through their own cancer battles. Nikita says, "I am a real survivor, and for them -- to honor them -- I have to do this. I feel so honored to represent all the survivors at this institution."

Kenneth Woo

Kenneth is a 17-year Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor, and a 6 /2-year acute myelogenous leukemia and stem cell transplant survivor. Kenneth has many ties with
M. D. Anderson. He is a longtime volunteer with the Anderson Network and routinely supports its members in their time of need. Kenneth chaired the 2009 Anderson Network steering committee and will chair the 2010 Anderson Network Living With, Through and Beyond Cancer Conference. Thoughtfully helping others touched by cancer is a priority in Kenneth's life, and he is quiet but passionate about doing so, helping not only other patients but also their caregivers. Because of Kenneth's cancer experience, he, wife Clara, and daughters Ashley and Kimberly have made the words "be a channel of blessings to others" their family motto.

Janice Duplessis

Janice is a 10-year breast cancer survivor and three-year metastatic cancer survivor. Soft-spoken and serene, she chaired Anderson Network's 2007 annual patient conference of 500 attendees while going through radiation treatments for brain metastasis. She adopted the conference theme, Power of Hope, to describe herself: "We who have cancer must believe in the power of hope. M. D. Anderson has given me hope for the strongest and longest survivorship." Janice volunteers at various conferences, with the Telephone Outreach Program for Breast Cancer and with the American Cancer Society. She and her husband, Rogers, have three sons. Janice credits Rogers, who established the Lean on Me Caregivers Group to support others who care for loved ones facing cancer, with being her strength.

Nadia Jones

Nadia Jones may only be 5 years old, but she's an experienced driver of a pint-sized pink power-wheels Ford Mustang, which she thoroughly enjoys. She is being treated for rhabdomyosarcoma in the Children's Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson, and attends kindergarten in Richmond, Texas. Nadia's mother, Brandie, says that despite the numerous obstacles Nadia has encountered since birth, she has always managed to maintain an extremely positive outlook on life.

Jason Connelly    

Diagnosed with stage IV melanoma in 2006, Jason has been a survivor for three years. He generously and passionately shares his story of diagnosis, intense treatment and survival, emphasizing the importance of philanthropic funds and their role in advancing the therapy that helped save his life. Jason was one of three cancer patients honored as Person of the Week on "ABC World News" in 2008. The joy of Jason's life is his adorable son, Jacob, 5. "I'm happier now than I have ever been. I'm happier now than I was before I got sick," Jason says.

Jaime Ramirez

Diagnosed in Mexico at age 4, Jaime had osteosarcoma that returned every two years for 17 years. His parents brought him to Houston when he was 7, and after other hospitals could do no more, Jaime, by then a teenager, came to M. D. Anderson. Jaime survived 18 surgeries on his leg, often enduring hospital stays alone while his mother returned home to South Texas to care for his nine brothers and sisters. Jaime has been cancer-free for 22 years, beginning in 1988, when he became an M. D. Anderson employee. "They saved my life, so as long as I'm alive, I will be part of this team's mission to end cancer," he says. Jaime also volunteers on M. D. Anderson's Diversity Council, as an Anderson Network Ambassador and as a caring guide to pediatric patients faced with losing a limb.

Kay Rogers
Kay is a 38-year breast cancer survivor and 21-year colorectal survivor. She has inspired others through 34 years of volunteer service with new volunteers, the Children's Art Project card program and the children's Health Adventures program. She is a motorcyclist and began the Ride for Life for Anderson Network's annual patient conference, served 18 years on the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation's Ride for Kids task force and supports the Harley's Angels calendar fundraiser. Kay is retiring soon from her accountant position at Northwest Honda but plans to continue her active lifestyle. Recently, she skydived and hopes to jump again with her husband for her 80th birthday next month. Kay lost her daughter, Patricia Rahl, one year ago to endometrial cancer and today honors her along with all those who did not conquer cancer, yet contributed greatly to the mission to eradicate it.


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