A Celebration of Heroes

Cancer generally isn't cause for celebration. But, the inspiration and strength radiating from the cancer survivors you are about to meet will make you understand why we're celebrating.

Gwinnett Magazine is proud to invite you to celebrate the lives of 18 local cancer patients who have become heroes in their own right. Some of these heroes are young, some are old, but all are brave, strong individuals who have faced cancer and fought – not only to survive – but to thrive.

Their stories are of strength and courage, each different but every one a story about the power of the human spirit.

"You can't do it alone."
Prior to ovarian cancer, Jane Maran was an avid tennis player and walker/jogger who loved to exercise, water ski and walk along the beach listening to the ocean surf. That all changed when, in April of 2004, Jane was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent surgery and was told that a chance of recurrence was only three to five percent. She found out later that someone had to be in that small percentile.

When her cancer returned in September 2005, Jane had another surgery. She endured six rounds of chemotherapy and a radiation therapy called CyberKnife. Afterwards, she was barely able to walk.

"My greatest triumph has been the dedication and hard work I have done to get myself walking without a walker or cane,"says Jane." The radiation severely damaged my femoral nerve which is responsible for both sensory and muscular workings of the leg." She hopes that the nerve will regenerate, but in the meantime, she keeps exercising to maintain what strength is still there. She has continued her charitable work with a local women' s club.

Jane says she learned a lot through this experience." I am a stronger person than I thought. You can't do it alone – family and friends are so important, and you have to have lots of patience. The most positive aspect of my experience was learning the value of true friends and their generosity."

"Life is good."
In the first week of January 2009, Sharon had just returned home from visiting family for the holidays when she felt a lump in her left breast while conducting a monthly self-exam. When she first learned that she did in fact have cancer,"I remember feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable and distraught...I knew I had to pull it together and be strong for my family... You realize that your diagnosis is going to affect many aspects of your life."

Sharon had a left breast mastectomy with reconstruction surgery. Her treatment after surgery consisted of chemotherapy for six months and Herceptin treatments for another six months. Just weeks after surgery, she went to her first Relay for Life event." What an experience! My employer, National Vision Incorporated, matched all the funds that I raised. I am so proud of the contributions they made in my honor."

Sharon says she has had the opportunity to share her story at several awareness events." People approach me in the grocery store, church, at school and on the job. People in general want to be informed and knowledgeable about the disease. I feel that taking the time to talk to people about questions that they have makes my journey worthwhile... Life is good."

"It made us live a better life with the time we have been given."
Robin Carraway and her husband Bill are high school sweethearts. Married for 34 years, they have three children and one grandchild, Madison Elaine who shares Robin's middle name. Robin and Bill have enjoyed a wonderful life together filled with family, sitting with friends on the front porch, and gathering everyone together for game and movie nights.

Much to her surprise, after a routine thyroid checkup shortly after her daughter's wedding, Robin was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Oddly, Robin and Bill hugged each other and celebrated when the doctor told them that her cancer was the slower moving kind that allowed about 10 years of life – versus the fast-moving kind that gave patients two to three years to live. The doctor looked puzzled and asked if they heard what he was telling them. Robin responded,"Yes, you said it was the slow kind with an average of 10 years of life. That gives us a lot of time for God and the doctors to do their thing!"

"One time I told my husband that I thought we were really blessed,"says Robin who worships with Bill at First Baptist Loganville Church." Everyone will die one day and none of us know when. The doctor's words just made us live a better life with the time we have left, which is really the way all of us should live. Those words kept us from wasting any of the days the Lord had allotted for us."

"Kids aren't supposed to get cancer."
A Shaun White look-alike, don't let Ryan Loggins fool you. He loves to skateboard, but is just in the third grade. When he grows up he has serious aspirations of being a professional skateboarder like Tony Hawk.

Ryan is full of surprises. His other passion is Relay for Life, which he looks forward to all year long. He and his older siblings go out and collect donations for the cause because Ryan knows what it means to have cancer. He was diagnosed with stage IV Burkitt's Lymphoma shortly after he finally"got to go to kindergarten and ride the bus like his big brother and sister."

But for more than three years, Ryan fought the battle and won. He will proudly tell you that his most powerful weapon against cancer was his own body. He says he learned that"shots hurt,"and"it's not fun to drink that nasty medicine."

"To hear the news 'your child has cancer' was tough,"says Ryan's mom, Christine." It hurt somewhere so deep inside, something and somewhere I just can't describe in words. Kids aren't supposed to get cancer." In disbelief, she wondered if it was somehow her fault.

Ryan went through nine months of chemotherapy as well as many surgeries, biopsies, lumbar punctures, scans, needle sticks and medications." Through it all he was such a trooper!"says his mom." He is my hero."

"Each day is a blessing!"
"Why my child?"asked Alexa Sheffield's mother eight years ago when her daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at age four." Little did we know how many like us are out there." Since then, Alexa and her family experienced the life-changing impact of cancer.

Now 12, Alexa may seem like a typical preteen. She's a sixth grade student at Hebron Christian Academy who loves crafts, works at Scoops in Dacula on the weekends making balloons animals, participates in a summer swim league, and has a plan to one day save endangered animals.

But Alexa is far from being your average middle schooler. After her diagnosis in preschool, the little girl underwent two years and six months of chemotherapy, had seven hospital stays, and more than a dozen spinal taps. Chemo pills were part of her daily life. Karen, Alexa's mom, is thankful that her daughter doesn't remember most of her treatment.

"Each day is a blessing. Enjoy your children – even the little things!"

"Some give hope and help bring you through your journey."
At 42, Cyndi Smith, a customer service rep at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, had never had heartburn in her life. She thought the pain she was experiencing was simply a sign of growing older. After a second opinion from a gastroenterologist, a tumor was found. Fast forward five years to 2010. Cyndi is living with carcinoid cancer, and the treatment plan she's on will make sure any future tumors are manageable via needle – not open surgery.

Cyndi's journey with cancer has inspired her to get involved with Metro Atlanta Carcinoid Awareness Group (MACAG) as co-chairperson. She says one of the positive aspects of her experience has been,"Meeting others with carcinoid and knowing we have the power through God and our words to enlighten and educate others."

What surprised Cyndi most about her diagnosis was how other people reacted to the news that she had cancer.

"Some reacted with disbelief, some with anger, and some with the fear that if they hug you it might be contagious. Then, there are the ones who hug you and hold on for dear life, giving you all their hope and vitality, to help bring you through your journey."

"Don't ask a girl why she doesn't have any hair."
Nichelle Coltrain is nine years old. Her favorite color is purple. She loves to paint, and when she grows up she wants to be a third grade teacher. Nichelle has also been Norton Elementary School's honorary Relay for Life chairperson for three years.

The day before her sixth birthday, Nichelle was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. A 45-minute biopsy became a four-hour surgery followed by rounds of chemotherapy. She was given the nickname"Little Trooper"because of all the needle pokes, contrasts and scans she had to endure. She was tough. She refused to wear a wig despite questions from classmates as to why she didn't have hair.

Nicole has been in remission for more than three years, but she still goes for monthly tests and scans." The experience has taught me that this does not define my child. She is still everything she was, just with another facet to her personality,"says Nichelle's mom, Kimberly.

Kimberly is amazed by the strides that have been made in the fight against cancer. And, that cancer doesn't automatically mean a death sentence." If an adolescent is diagnosed with this type of cancer, there is an 85 percent survivor rate."

"Be thankful for what you have."
Mai Nguyen is a Buford stay-at-home mom with three energetic boys ages 11, 6 and 5. She loves taking care of her family, cooking and driving her boys to after-school activities like basketball, soccer and swimming.

But in October of 2006, she was the one that needed to be taken care of when she was diagnosed with cancer." I was shocked at first and couldn't quite accept the fact that I had colon cancer at age 35. There was no logical explanation of why cancer found me."

She underwent an operation and seven feet of her colon was removed. She spent the entire year in 2007 going through chemotherapy. Staying motivated and positive to successfully complete the treatment, she said she learned to take it one day at a time." Although I have been in remission for three years, I don't take it for granted. I made some major changes in my lifestyle to better my health,"she says.

The biggest thing Mai has learned from this experience is,"Life is precious....always be thankful for what you have. My children are my inspiration and purpose in life."

"This experience equipped me to help others."
Susan Little says if it hadn't been for cancer she probably wouldn't have her current position in breast health. A registered nurse, who previously worked in labor and delivery, Susan now works as the breast health coordinator at Emory Eastside Medical Center." I am passionate about breast health and breast cancer awareness. I work with breast cancer patients and patients that have breast health issues. I love to talk with women and be a shoulder to cry on. And, in turn, I always receive a blessing from my patients."

Susan was first diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2003; she was 35 years old at the time. Her initial thought was,"My daughters! They were 13 and 9 then. I worried about their future. But they were so strong and understanding. I did not hold anything back. I told them details about what was going on. I really think this helped them through the process."

In March of 2009, a second suspicious area developed." My mind was made up. I was having a mastectomy with reconstruction. No ifs, ands or buts about it." She under went surgery in April 2009 and finished her last surgery in December." I probably would not have my current position in breast health if it had not been for cancer."

"Anyone can get cancer."
"I have cancer?"was Sandra Abdull-Lawrence's first thought after a routine mammogram in 2009 detected a lump in her left breast. It was removed and found to be cancerous. Her first thoughts flew to her mother in Jamaica who had had a mastectomy 12 years ago.

Sandra opted to have a mastectomy with reconstruction." I am receiving chemotherapy and considering radiation therapy because of my unknown lymph node status. My oncologist said my prognosis is good and I am looking forward to beating this cancer as soon as possible."

Her greatest challenge so far has been allowing herself to be waited on and accepting help when necessary. She learned that anyone can get cancer." It makes you a more humble and compassionate person. It allows you to put your pride aside and do what you have to do to survive."

Sandra, who works as a nurse, says she's better able to bond with patients that have cancer. She is also glad her experience has made her family, friends and co-workers more aware of the need for self-examinations and yearly mammograms to check for breast cancer.

Sandra has a lot to celebrate at this year's Relay of Life celebration." This will be my first year, and I am looking forward to joining all the other cancer survivors and having a great day of support, crying and laughter!"

"You have to trust God and just live your life."
Tony Velo has been dealing with cancer from the time he was just over a year old. Now at age 11, he's still fighting it. His first chemo treatments started at age five and MRI's have become a way of life. He has one at least every three months.

At age five, Tony's first round of chemotherapy resulted in him having to leave school. He couldn't walk and required feeding tubes. He considers one of his greatest triumphs to be when he worked his way back from a wheelchair to walking again. Some of his greatest challenges have been just being able to be a kid. Since Tony hasn't been able to play sports for a few years, he has become a passionate sports fan and is very vocal about his hometown teams.

"Cancer has been his whole life,"says Tony's mom, Cathy." There was never any experience of how it is to live without it." Despite this fact, Tony says one of the positive aspects of his experience with cancer is what he sees in others." I've met a lot of really nice people, and I get to see the good side of people all the time." He says the thing that surprises him the most is"a lot of children die from it." But, the most important thing to remember when faced with cancer is"to trust God and just live your life."

"I can do anything when I put my mind to it."
When Meagan Gaultney was four years old, her parents, Steve and Kathy, found out she had cancer." My mom's friend thought I had a lazy eye, but when we went to the doctor we found out that I had retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that affects the retina." She had her left eye removed to rid her body of the disease.

"I really have not had to live with cancer, but without my eye,"Meagan says." That's been the biggest challenge." But not one that she hasn't been able to meet with style and grace. Meagan is a seventh grader at Greater Atlanta Christian School; she's the goalie of her soccer team and loves to sing." When I first had my eye removed, my parents said that I sang a song that said, 'I am God's project, and he never fails.' In God's eyes, I am perfect; there is a purpose for my life and why this happened."

Meagan says she grateful to be an inspiration to other people with cancer, handicaps and disabilities. She likes being able to show that you can overcome something and turn it into something positive for others to see." My attitude and my personality are my most powerful weapons. I can do anything when I put my mind to it."

"I can overcome anything that comes my way"
In an unusual coincidence, Jonathan Garcia of Sugar Hill and his grandfather were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. At the time, Jonathan was only 18 months old. Five years later, his grandfather lost his battle with the disease. Jonathan is now 11 and says he can overcome anything that comes his way.

His leukemia set the course for strength and bravery. After more than three years of chemo, Jonathan looks back and thinks how hard it must have been on his family." I was just a baby so to me it was normal to be in the hospital all the time, or to have a port,"he says." My mom and dad had a harder time with it all."

Jonathan says he was never alone in his pain, there was always someone holding his hand through good days and bad. Now he spends his days playing baseball, riding his bike and fishing.

He talks of love and faith from his family. And, he looks forward to turning 12 in August and to the arrival of a new baby brother very soon.

"Life is a gift. Live it with love."
After several incorrect diagnoses, Opal Mincey-Beaver, who loves gardening, sunshine and summer, was diagnosed in May 2008 with carcinoid cancer with carcinoid syndrome. She under went surgery and treatment. The Lilburn resident still has the syndrome but conditions are stable. She is still on Octreotide every 12 hours and must go for a multitude of tests and scans monthly.

"When the doctor first told me, I did not want to believe the news, but I knew it was true. At first I cried, but that didn't help,"says Opal, who retired from her insurance career in 2000." So, I started fighting this disease with my strong faith in prayer, church, friends, updated cancer research, and my dear friend Judy Smith at the local American Cancer Society, who was a great source of information and help."

Opal's support group Metro Atlanta Carcinoid Awareness Group (MACAG) has also helped. She says the advice she would give to others recently faced with the news of cancer would be: don't be afraid to get a second opinion. And, find a support group. Her most powerful weapons have been"prayer and hope."

"It has taught me not to give up. Life is a gift. Live it with love,"she says.

"Hearing the 'C' word will make you stop and think!"
"Everyone at some point in their lives has been or will be touched by cancer, either personally or through a friend or family member,"says Allen Richardson, president of Richardson Housing Group." After my diagnosis, I was surprised by the number of people that are cancer survivors that I was never aware even had cancer."

Allen was 54 when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His own father is a prostate cancer survivor, but he was diagnosed at age 72.

Allen lives in Suwanee and is the proud father of two children and four grandchildren. He enjoys golf and traveling. His biggest passion is spending time with his family. He says one of the things he learned is that,"It will make you stop and think about what is important in life...I knew I had been diagnosed early, and chances were very good that I could be cured. But, hearing the 'C' word will make you stop and think!"

Allen frequently gets phone calls from friends about prostate cancer." No one just calls to talk about prostate cancer, they have a reason. I have been very open with anyone who asked what I did and why." He says his experience has encouraged his friends to visit the doctor.

"I want to be a living example to my children."
Almost 10 years ago, when Stone Mountain resident Eric Dunlap was working in his yard, he noticed some blood on his shirt. This kept happening, so he contacted a doctor. The doctor said the bleeding was from some sort of trauma and would stop. The only problem, the bleeding didn't stop. Then one day while working out, Eric felt an excruciating chest pain. It was then upon self-examination, he found a lump.

Dad to two boys ages 10 and 13, Eric coaches soccer and basketball, and spends time as a motivational speaker. At age 34 he was diagnosed with breast cancer. His first thought upon hearing he had cancer was,"How long do I have to live?"He underwent a radical mastectomy with simultaneous reconstruction and six months of chemotherapy.

Eric has used his experience to help others. He's become an advocate for cancer funding, research and awareness." My diagnosis was the catalyst for pursuing inspirational and motivational speaking,"he says. He feels his greatest triumph has been encouraging others newly diagnosed with breast cancer." I want to be a living example to my children. If they encounter difficulties in life, they can get through it."

"He never slowed down."
Kyle Cruce has big plans. When he turns 18, he wants to be a camp counselor at Camp Sunshine – a camp for children with cancer. But for now, Kyle's an active 13-year-old. He loves baseball, lacrosse and basketball, and he is currently the manager of the eighth grade basketball team at Jones Middle School.

Back in 2001, Kyle was diagnosed with leukemia. He went through chemotherapy, bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps. In March of 2004, he relapsed – just five months after finishing treatment. Kyle had a bone marrow transplant and is now, more than five years after his transplant, healthy and active.

Not that he wasn't active during treatment." Kyle would have chemotherapy and a spinal tap in the morning and want to play in his baseball game that night,"says Regina, Kyle's mom." In young children...it is not a disease that will slow you down. Kyle never slowed down....he continued to go outside and wanted to be with his friends."

One of the most positive experiences that came out of Kyle's diagnosis was when Shawn McEachern, 2004 Captain of the Atlanta Thrashers, came to visit him at his house. Shawn played X-Box with Kyle and even joined in a neighborhood game of street hockey.

"I decided I would not give in to cancer."
In November of 1996, high school Principal Jim Markham, began to feel completely worn out by the end of every workday. He would barely make it to the house, eat dinner and limp his way to bed. The pain in his back grew so bad he decided to see a doctor.

Now the principal at Mill Creek High School, Jim remembers the day he got the news vividly. It was December 16, and his students were eager for Christmas break. The doctor asked Jim to come to his office to talk, but Jim wasn't about to leave the school. The doctor reluctantly told Jim he had cancer over the phone. Test revealed multiple myeloma, a type of incurable bone marrow cancer. A meeting with a bone marrow specialist revealed that Jim was too far along for a transplant.

"At diagnosis I had 12 tumors or lesions identified as active multiple myeloma. I was given 27 to 36 months to live. After the second hospitalization, I decided that I would not give in to cancer...I have been in remission ever since."

When he attended Relay for Life the following year, Jim was touched,"More than 300 luminaries were purchased in my name that first year. I was moved to tears several times as I made the early morning walk around the Gwinnett Fairgrounds."