Celebrate Our Heroes

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by Dana Urrutia

We all have heroes in our lives. Those who inspire us, those who we admire, those that make us want to try harder, accomplish more and whine less. Heroes come in all ages and sizes, from circumstances both ordinary and extraordinary.

We”re grateful that we have the chance to introduce you to some of the heroes in our midst every year as we support Gwinnett”s Relay for Life and the American Cancer Society. This year, we were again awed by the stories we heard. Children who seem made of courage; newlyweds who beam with joy in the throes of chemotherapy; mothers who want only to spare others; and fathers who want to serve as an example to their children. Gwinnett Magazine is proud to bring you these survivor stories, and we invite you to visit to view video Webisodes about our heroes.

On May 8, our community will come together to celebrate survivorship, honor memories and stand with our heroes at Gwinnett”s Relay for Life. The Gwinnett County Fairgrounds will fill with more than 12,000 at what is now the single largest Relay event in the world. As the signature event for the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life celebrations raise money for cancer research, education, advocacy and patient services. Gwinnett”s own has raised more than $22 million over 15 years.

If you”re looking for heroes, you”ll find them aplenty at Relay. They include family, friends, caregivers, fundraisers, healthcare providers, advocates and volunteers, all devoted to helping support and swell the ranks of the 4,000 plus who”ll lead this year”s Survivor”s Walk. Count us in!

Pastor B.J. Relefourd

“I want to do what I can to share and spread the good news.”

Pastor B.J. Relefourd views cancer with a surprising perspective. “I find (cancer) to be my jewel in the rough.” Going through cancer, she says, allowed her to share the experience with others and provided a focus that has become her life”s work.

In 1993, B.J. found a lump during her monthly self-exam. Still in her 30s, she went for her first mammogram which showed an abnormality in her left breast. “When they gave me the diagnosis, I just dropped to my knees. My children were young – ,” she remembers. “I had no idea what this would entail. At that time, in my community, in the African-American community, breast cancer was just not discussed very much.”

“I couldn”t believe it. This could not be happening to me. I had just started in the ministry; I was a young woman, just getting a sense of myself. Why was this happening now? I had quit smoking. I changed my life and things should be rosy,” she says. B.J. had radiation and a lumpectomy. Cancer was also discovered in the lymph nodes, so a partial mastectomy was recommended and performed.

“After the fear, and the tears, and the denial, and the grief, I pulled myself from my boot straps and asked – What am I to learn from this? Out of this was born my need and my calling to speak to other women and to educate them about breast cancer.”

For sixteen years, B.J. has been speaking, and traveling, and working with women of all ages so they won”t be fearful. Now Pastor B.J., she and her husband of 29 years formed Vision of Life Church, ministering to the whole person and meeting all types of needs – from food and clothing to spiritual concerns. She founded Women of Power, a group dedicated to fostering self-awareness and self-worth among women.

“Prayer and my family were my comfort,” says Pastor B.J. “If I were to give advice, I would first say – cry. You don”t have to be strong for anyone.” But this woman of power is also a woman of action and so she also advises, “Seek a second opinion. Find a good oncologist. Find out about different treatments available to you.”

“I want to do what I can to share and spread the good news that there is help.”

Tod Madderra

As an active member of the Gwinnett Relay for Life steering committee, Tod Madderra uses his personal talents and professional know-how to raise awareness about cancer, the value of early detection and the ultimate goal of prevention. By harnessing the power of the Internet and the impact of video, he”s able to help the Gwinnett American Cancer Society unit reach thousands with a message of how pervasive cancer is. Cancer, as Tod will tell you, can happen to anyone.

It”s a message he”s delivered strongly and consistently for years. Except, he now admits, he really didn”t believe it would happen to him. “Secretly, in the back of your mind, you”re thinking it”s not going to be you. I”m fine – I don”t need to wear sunscreen. But that”s changed. I know now – you are not special. Everyone is susceptible to this disease.”

In December 2008, Tod was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma – skin cancer. He”d been getting annual check ups from his dermatologists, a habit started after he began working with ACS. “They”d occasionally find some pre-cancerous things. But this last time – you could just see it in their faces.”

Tests confirmed cancer, and the “spot” on Tod”s forehead was surgically removed. “It still seems very surreal. I don”t feel like I had cancer – and then the gravity sets in. Cancer is cancer.”

There is a silver lining, says Tod. “I have two little boys, 5 and 7, and we”ve always been diligent with the sunscreen for them. Now, I can say, “This is what happens if you don”t wear sunscreen.” They can now see a perfect example of why they need to do this.”

Always a proponent of early detection, Tod now says he”s turned up the volume even more. “I feel like the greatest impact I can possibly make – whether it is me or through ACS – is to tell people: Don”t underestimate this disease. Anyone can get it at anytime, and the way to make the biggest impact in terms of reducing numbers is to get checked. Don”t ever assume that it”s just nothing. Get it checked.”

Lynne Gasiorek

“You have to decide to celebrate life.”

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