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Celebrating cancer survivors

Veterans enjoyed a putting competition sponsored by PGA Hope at the Cancer Expo and Celebration on Sept. 10. Photo by James Arrowood.
Veterans enjoyed a putting competition sponsored by PGA Hope at the Cancer Expo and Celebration on Sept. 10. Photo by James Arrowood.

On Tuesday, Sept. 10 bright, yellow, smiley face balloons lined the halls of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center leading to the hospital’s Main Auditorium for the first annual Cancer Expo and Celebration, a special event to honor Veteran cancer survivors.

The expo was titled “1000 Reasons to Smile,” and with more than 20 Veteran cancer survivors in the room along with their caregivers, families and friends – there were certainly many reasons to smile and milestones to celebrate.

For months, Charleston VAMC oncology clinical care staff worked to ensure that each of these Veterans felt honored during the event.

“We’ve been looking forward to celebrating life and survivorship with these men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country,” said Kathleen Lynch, RN, cancer care nurse manager and event co-organizer. “We’re so happy to have the Veterans’ family and friends along with them here too because, during a diagnosis of cancer, the support of loved ones is crucial, and they celebrate right alongside their Veteran.”

One of those caregivers is Gilda McBryde, who attended the event alongside her husband Graham, a U.S. Navy Veteran.

“This is a great celebration that makes the Veterans feel special,” said Gilda McBryde.

The couple traveled from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to the medical center in Charleston to celebrate Graham’s five and a half years of remission after his bone marrow transplant.

During the event Veterans were able to enjoy yoga, Tai Chi, reiki and shag lesson sessions. There was also a putting competition led by PGA Hope and live music provided by Guitars for Vets. Charleston VAMC Voluntary Service was on-hand serving refreshments and giving each Veteran a goody bag stuffed with a soft pillow, ornament, hat, designer socks, girl scout cookies and other snacks.

A particularly touching moment during the event was a poem read by U.S. Army Veteran Alice Witt-Smith, a breast cancer survivor. After four rounds of chemotherapy and 42 radiation treatments, Witt-Smith celebrates 10 years of remission.

“I like to tell people my story to help lift them up,” said Witt-Smith. “I don’t want people to be in despair, I want them to be positive.”

Her inspiring poetry reading was met with thunderous applause by all those in attendance, as many Veterans were able to relate to her experience and struggles.

“I’m cancer free. I won” is how Witt-Smith ended her poem in a triumphant and proud voice.

Enrique Cruz, a U.S. Navy Veteran and resident at Patriot Villas, almost didn’t make it to the celebration.

“I had a sleepless night last night, but I was determined to come here and celebrate,” said Cruz.

Cruz was tearful sharing his survivorship story from stage four tongue cancer.

“I’m happy to be here, to meet people and share my story as a one of the 19% of stage four cancer survivors,” said Cruz.

During the event, different members of the Veterans’ care team flowed through the Main Auditorium to connect with their Veteran patients, celebrating their life and determination.

“It’s incredible to be able to take this time to celebrate our Veterans,” said Lynch. “And despite all they’ve been through battling cancer, their attitudes are bright and positive. It is truly an honor to be involved in their care and to be able to do something special like this for them.”

The Ralph H. Johnson plans hold a celebration each year going forward in honor of these brave Veteran survivors.

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