It all started with a song.
When the Heroes Project kicked off five years ago, we hoped it would thrive as a way to raise money for Relay for Life and cancer research. With the release of “All Are Our Heroes,” Publisher David Greer and other local artists and musicians sought to strike a resounding chord for those affected by the disease.
As part of the project, Gwinnett Magazine asked survivors to share their stories inside the publication”s pages in an effort to spread hope.
The end result was something so much more powerful than we could have imagined. The words of these local Heroes were a glimpse into the very fabric of life itself.
In the following pages you”ll see courage personified by a little girl, a little boy, a grown man or woman. Regardless of age, each person has a unique outlook to share with their world. Their gift to all of us is one of perspective.
The lives of these Heroes were changed in a split second. As they sat in the doctor”s office on a day forever stamped in their memories and learned they had cancer, they thought about the people they loved. They thought about what mattered.
And in that moment, these Gwinnett County residents made a declaration that set them apart. With a resolve that would inspire those around them, these individuals found an inner strength
Today, these stories continue to inspire, and we hope to keep raising money in the battle against cancer. To download the song, visit WEBSITE GOES HERE
Turn the page to get acquainted with your local Heroes.
“Breast cancer does not discriminate.”
You could hear a pin drop in the exam room when the doctor told her the devastating news. Out of confusion and disbelief, she stared blankly, letting the words take root in her mind: Breast Cancer. She turned to her husband, asking him if he”d heard what the doctor had said.
The rising waves of panic made their way through her body, but it all stopped when she heard the voice of God speak to her: “I got this. Don”t worry.” And a calm washed over Keisha Hull.
More than ten years after her breast cancer diagnosis, the 41-year-old training and development coordinator at Gwinnett Technical College continues to celebrate being cancer free.
It wasn”t easy by any means, but she pushed through years of treatment. “I was on an emotional roller coaster…but my spirits were high on most days. I even found myself consoling others as I waited my turn at the treatment center.”
Hull said that with early detection a cancer diagnosis doesn”t have to be a death sentence. “For me, it was an awakening. Through my journey and victory over breast cancer, I was afforded a keen awareness that my life is not my own. It is to serve God”s purpose for me.”
Hull said her hope is that through reading her testimonial “someone”s life is preserved, because breast cancer does not discriminate. We are all at risk, but early detection saves lives.”
“Don”t wait for tomorrow, and love big”
She moved with grace across the stage. Every move, every breath seemingly an effortless display of her love of life.
As so many of us do, Anna Mott funneled all her energy into her passion, losing herself in the quiet momentum, her talent on display for those who saw her dance.
As a ballerina with Gwinnett Ballet Theatre, she performed in productions like the Nutcracker, her body and mind in tune: flowing with precision.
A back injury in 2011 put her on the sidelines. A diagnosis of pineoblastoma and a subsequent brain tumor ended her dancing career.
Doctors performed surgery to remove the tumor, but the young girl had already lost her vision. The cancerous growth had done permanent damage, but it couldn”t extinguish the light in her eyes.
It couldn”t discourage Anna from being positive. “Anna”s strength comes from within,” said mom, Melissa. “She”s always been so mature, so responsible. And she”s still strong to this day, despite what she”s been through.” While mom said Anna”s passion for dancing has been put on hold, she”s found a new appreciation for life. Her ballet aspirations have been replaced by a desire to help others. “She prays to God everyday that he”ll find a way to use her. Now, Anna wants to be a nurse.”
The past several years have taught Anna”s mom many lessons. “Don”t sweat the small stuff, don”t wait for tomorrow,” she said. “And love big.”
“Have a good attitude and a positive approach”
You never know what tomorrow holds. That”s more than a maxim for Anthony Rodriguez. Savoring each fleeting moment is a way of life for the 50-year-old producing artistic director at Aurora Theatre. It”s a habit that took root more than 23 years ago when doctors told him about the malignant sarcoma in his leg.
Just 27 years old at the time, Rogriguez said the news profoundly devastated his parents and then-wife. “In the beginning there was so much we didn”t know,” he said. “They didn”t know if they”d have to amputate. There were a lot of variables we didn”t understand…but for any cancer patient, regardless of what kind of cancer you may have, the moment you hear the news, it”s a life changer.”
Following diagnosis, there were numerous doctor appointments, treatments, and medications to consider. In addition, he said cancer patients must educate themselves on the ins and outs of insurance and the world of medical professionals.
“It”s a lot to take in,” he said. “Once they tell you, it”s off to the races.”
Following a surgery to remove the cancer and the subsequent treatments, Rodriguez continues to take it one day at a time. “It”s one of those situations where you”ve got to approach with as much positive energy as you can,” he said. “It doesn”t hurt to have a good attitude and a positive approach.”
“People are put in your life for a reason”
What 23-year-old Carmen Vargas lost was flesh and blood. For what she gained, the local woman considers it a bargain. After surgery to remove her breast cancer, Vargas said she was imparted “so much wisdom and knowledge.”
Her journey began as a 15 year old, when she noticed a growth in her body. “I didn”t expect there to be anything wrong, but I went to the doctor anyway.” Results came back shortly thereafter that the young woman in fact had cancer. “It was a shock for me. It was a shock for my family, but I took it the best I could, and I just went ahead with my surgery.”
After surgery, the removal of three different tumors, as well as radiation and chemotherapy, Vargas felt her outlook on life begin to change. “The whole experience gave me a sense of my own mortality…that we”re here one day, but we might not be here the next.”
This wisdom helped her enjoy life more than ever before, she said.
“Now I feel more love and I feel more compassion for other people…especially family and friends.”
Vargas said she realized that “I can”t do it on my own. People are put in your life for a reason. Sometimes you don”t know what that reason is until things take a turn for the worse. But it”s up to you to see your situation in new light. That”s where you find the power to overcome.”
“Life is too short, and you have to cherish every moment”
Breast cancer is a daunting adversary for the family of Carrie Cave. Her mother, sister, and aunt were all diagnosed. And several years back, she herself got some troubling news.
As she eyed her options, Cave made the decision to have a double mastectomy. “I thought if I did that I wouldn”t have to go through chemo…but I did end up having to go through chemo. Six rounds of it.”
Now in remission, the woman has found time to reflect on what got her through the experience. As it turns out, it was her own advice. “When my sister was diagnosed, I just kept telling her, “you just have to get through it.” Once I was diagnosed, I had to practice what I preached,” she said, laughing. “And it”s true. It”s just something you have to fight through.”
Having cancer taught Cave that “life is too short, and you have to cherish every moment. It”s one day at a time for everyone, not just cancer survivors.”
She credits those around her for helping get through it all. “I couldn”t have done it without the support of my husband, my family, and my coworkers.”
In a family that”s so severely felt the effects of this disease, Cave counts herself lucky to have the strong support system in her life. “It”s during these difficult times when you really get to witness how wonderful these people are.”
“Take advantage of every moment”
Looking back through the years, Dan Martin remembers a lot of the advice his pop used to give him. Much of what he learned extended to all things in life. But one thing in particular sticks out. “My dad used to say to me, “you just keep on keeping on. You don”t quit. You just keep going.””
Martin found the advice useful over the years, but never more so than the day he learned he had cancer.
It was April 2012 that Martin found out he”d developed prostate cancer. “I”d been through so much in my life,” Martin said. “When I found out about this, I said “why now? Couldn”t this wait another 10 or 15 years down the road?””
He started his radiation treatments in October 2012, getting through the emotional and physical toll that the disease took with the help of family and friends.
“You just do it. You take your treatments. You can”t stop…it doesn”t do any good,” Martin said.
His attitude and proactive approach to prostate cancer put him on the path to recovery. Within a year of being diagnosed, his cancer was in remission.
The 58-year-old loves life. He loves his job at Grayson Technical Program as a technical support technician. He loves his wife. And he”s happy to be here.
Martin said those who suspect they might have cancer should “get treatment. Don”t be afraid to do it.”
And he offered the following to anybody reading this: “Live every day as best you can and as full as you can. Take advantage of every moment, and live life to its fullest.”
“Every day is a gift”
David Greer knows the toll cancer can take on the family. He”s seen it from all perspectives. As a prostate cancer survivor, he battled the disease. As a son who watched lung cancer take his own mother, he vowed to encourage those around him to be vigilant, to get screened.
Diagnosed three years ago with prostate cancer, Greer followed the procedures recommended by his doctor. He encouraged others to do the same. “You”ve got to follow the advice of your physicians,” he said. It”s counsel he offers to anyone and everyone who”s just learned such news. And to those who don”t know whether or not they have cancer: “Start getting checked.”
“Listen to these medical professionals,” said the 78-year-old Gwinnett County resident. “Follow their recommendations. Choose the route that”s right for you, based on what they say.”
Prior to his diagnosis, Greer was cognizant of the possibility that he himself might one day be affected. His family history kept him wary. It was this foreknowledge that allowed him to catch prostate cancer in its early stages.
Ever since surgery last year to remove it, he”s gotten nothing but positive reports from the doctor. “If you find out you”ve got cancer, then you get it taken care of. You do that so that you can move forward.”
Having successfully moved forward in his life, Greer reflected that “every day is a gift.”
“People like to think they”re infallible. But cancer can strike anybody. So you live each day, and you live it with gratitude.”
“It”s taught me to be healthier, stress less”
Always go with your gut feeling.
Jenny Shaw of Buford has always held strong to this belief. Even when facing a frightening diagnosis of ulcerated melanoma, the 37-year-old Buford woman embraced her convictions, knowing that deep in her heart she would do what was best for her children and for herself.
After numerous surgeries and intense physical therapy, doctors told her she needed chemotherapy. But something inside her said “no.”
Foregoing the chemical treatments, she met with a doctor who offered to put her on alternative medicines. She took care of her body. She ate well. And today, she”s in remission.
“I”ve learned to be more aware of what I”m doing to my body,” she said. “It”s taught me to be healthier, stress less and definitely spread the news about healthier alternative treatments.”
She”s also made it her life”s mission to help raise awareness about melanoma, a disease she feels does not get enough attention. “People need to know how dangerous it really is,” she said.
Jenny joined a support group for individuals with melanoma. She found some comfort in talking about the disease with others who”d faced it. “It used to really depress me, but I learned that I can”t dwell on it. I focus instead on the health and safety of my kids, and I take care of myself as much as I can, because the people I love depend on me.”
“Life is short,” she added. “It”s something people say all the time, but when you face cancer, the message really hits home.”
“I got my second chance at life”
Marina Sampanes Peed
What if the one person who could save your life was a stranger?
As she sought a match for a much-needed blood transfusion and bone marrow transplant, Marina Sampanes Peed learned that not even her immediate family could help her.
For the past six years, she had managed a chronic blood cancer called Polycythemia Vera. It nearly killed her.
Doctors told her that she had two years to find a donor match. “It was the biggest sucker punch you could imagine,” Peed said. “Just imagine getting an expiration date like that.”
With no matches in her family, Marina”s life was dependent on the kindness of strangers. In July 2013, she was notified that a 22-year-old man from Europe was her perfect match. After the stranger donated his stem cells, Marina”s procedure was a successful. She celebrated her “rebirth day.”
“I got my second chance at life,” the 48-year-old said. “It makes you appreciate all those things you never noticed before.
“Every day, no matter how crappy you might feel, no matter how rough you think you have it, find something to be grateful for…and keep a sense of humor even in the bad times…these are essential qualities.”
She encouraged those who have a desire to help others to consider becoming a donor. “You don”t have to be a millionaire to help cure someone”s cancer. You just have to be willing to donate a piece of yourself. Every one of us can do something to save someone”s life.”
“You have to hold your head high”
When cancer rears its head, friends and family of the person diagnosed huddle around their loved one in a show of support. In these moments, many realize it”s that very person who sets the tone for their battle with the disease. The strength of their character emboldens those around them to also be strong.
After being diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, McKenzie Casal, a teenage Peachtree Ridge High School student, finished out her lacrosse season, went to prom, and kept doing the things she”d always done. It was the only option, she said.
“You have to hold your head high,” the 18-year-old said. “I felt like I had to be strong for everyone else.”
Her mom agreed. “Kenzie never showed in public anything that she was probably feeling at the time. She was so confident in herself. She stood tall through everything, and people were so inspired by her.”
McKenzie went through four rounds of chemotherapy and changed her diet completely. She”s been cancer free for a year and a half.
The young girl said that that the whole episode taught her to put things in perspective. “It made me look at my situation, and what I realized was it could have been a whole lot worse.”
And where did McKenzie find that wave of strength that inspired her friends and family?
“I just handled it in my own way. I did things in my own time…I thought of cancer as something that I needed to get out of the way so that I could move on to the next phase in my life.”
“Be happy today”
A father wants the world for his child.
From the moment he holds him in his arms in the hospital room, their eyes meeting for the very first time, there”s an unspoken blood pledge. He will do anything to protect his offspring.
But when Jeff McPhail”s young son Reece was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2011, the father felt helpless. “Having your child go through something that you can”t do anything about as a parent, it”s very painful. You have to be there to support them as best you can.”
The Hebron Christian Academy student endured intense chemotherapy treatments, but wouldn”t let the disease keep him off the ice hockey rink and the tennis courts, where he continued to enjoy athleticism and the camaraderie of his friends.
The sports-loving 10-year-old is a source of strength for friends as well as family. With about one year left to finish treatment he is currently in remission. McPhail said his son is “inspiring to me because he has a good attitude and doesn”t let cancer get in the way of living his life to the fullest.”
“His strength gets us all through the good days and the bad days.” After all, it”s not easy watching your son go through what Reece has experienced over the last three years.
“He”s been real good throughout this whole thing. He tries to maintain his normal life. Not missing school unless he absolutely has to…playing as much sports as he can.”
Jeff said seeing Reece living life the way he does is a daily inspiration. “You realize that every day is indeed a blessing. You never know from one day to the next what”s in store, so be happy today.”
“You are your own best advocate”
Susan Lee could feel the world shifting around her as she heard the news. The doctor delivered it professionally, in a delicate manner, but nothing could have prepared her for the words: “It”s cancer.”
Not just any cancer, but one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer. What some might call a death sentence. But it didn”t deter Susan. She began her fight, battling the disease with strength that would come to surprise her friends, family and even herself.
Five years later, and she”s in remission. The 50-year-old Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners liaison said that having been through the life-changing diagnosis and countless doctor visits, she”s come through it all with a better understanding of the medical world and a greater appreciation for life in general.
“Your faith is first,” she said. “I don”t know how anybody can get through something like this without having a strong faith in God…and the knowledge that he”s going to get you through it.”
She said the support of family and friends also helped her stay strong. Caregivers too were instrumental in her recovery. “We need to do a better job recognizing these people…without them, we”d have a lot more folks that weren”t successful in their survivorship.”
Having a support system is essential, she said, but looking out for yourself is your responsibility. “You are your own best advocate. So many people who have cancer get lost in the system. Folks are afraid to make their doctors and nurses mad. Don”t be. The bureaucracy of it all can get you lost, but stay on it. Be an advocate for yourself.”
“I don”t let little things bother me”
Friends of Susie Moe describe her as a positive influence in their lives whose refusal to bow down in the face of cancer is a continual inspiration. That strong personality trait was put to the test nine years ago as she faced a shocking diagnosis of stage one ovarian cancer. What started out as a stomach ache led to the discover and subsequent surgery and chemotherapy. “I was shocked and scared at first,” she said. “More than anything else, it was a shock for my family.”
The mother of three took a step back to recover while family members stepped in to help run the household. What she didn”t realize was that the positive outlook she held onto made her family strong. “There”s so much that can be accomplished with a positive attitude. You just look at all the doctor appointments and treatments as something you have to go through to get through it all.”
With this experience, Susie learned the gift of patience. “Now, having been through all of that, I don”t let little things bother me like I did before I got sick. I just try to remember what”s truly important: Enjoying my life and being surrounded by the people that I love.”
The 58-year-old Gwinnett County woman thanks God that the cancer was caught early, and she”s thankful to those around her for their help.
“I was blessed to have good medical care, a good support system and the help of those around me.”