There is a moment that repeats itself in the lives of people all over the world. It’s a moment that divides time – cutting a clear path that creates two distinct portions of one’s life: the time before and the time after it occurred.
It happens in a hospital room, with antiseptic scents and heart monitor machines that beep and buzz. A physician comes in the room, where you and a loved one have been waiting. Or perhaps in a small doctor’s office, where you learn the results of all the imaging and bloodwork, and you try to keep it together.
A cancer diagnosis can be one of the most life-changing moments for the person diagnosed – just as much so in the lives of their friends and family. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
Sandra Strickland, 78, of Lawrenceville knows this all too well. Her mother, father and brother all died from cancer. Sandra herself has been twice diagnosed with – and has twice defeated – the disease that causes cells to grow uncontrollably, often spreading to other parts of the body. She’s also had several pre-cancers removed in her lifetime.
If the name “Sandra Strickland” sounds familiar, it’s for a good reason. She and husband of 58 years Clyde Strickland are known around Gwinnett County for their philanthropy. Perhaps, most notably, for building the Strickland Heart Center at Northside Hospital Gwinnett. Their contributions around the county and beyond are numerous.
Just last year, Sandra was named Philanthropist of the Year by the Greater Atlanta Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Husband, Clyde, is also known for his philanthropy, as well as being founder
of Metro Waterproofing, one of the most successful companies serving the construction industry in the Southeastern United States.
It’s Sandra’s husband, Clyde, who was there with her during the cancer diagnoses she faced: once in 1973, and again in 1977. She knows how impactful that moment can be, as the person being diagnosed, as well as the loved one of the person diagnosed.
“That’s the hardest moment,” Sandra says. “When you learn you or a loved one have cancer. I remember when they announced to mom and I that my daddy had cancer… and it just grabs you. And you have to learn to adjust your world from that very moment.”
THE POWER OF PRAYER AND HEALING
There is a moment that repeats itself in the lives of people all over the world.
It’s a moment when the fight with cancer has taken its toll. There is nothing to be done but come to terms with it. Loved ones decide it’s time to stop fighting and end the suffering – or the person who’s battled for so long passes on their own, embarking on whatever lies beyond this world we know.
It’s never an easy thing to accept, but sometimes, despite their brave fight with the disease, letting our loved ones go to God is the only thing that makes sense. It happens in a bedroom or in a hospital, where family and friends gather at their side. There are tears. There are memories shared. There are prayers. And, for those like Sandra whose lives have been so heavily affected by cancer, there is beauty to be found in the moment.
“When I saw my mother pass away, and my dad pass away… it was actually a beautiful moment,” Sandra says. “You see their face change, and all of a sudden when they leave this earth you can almost feel God breathing in their last breath. And they relax.”
Adds Sandra: “I’ve never feared death. I think when you lose somebody who is precious to you, you mourn and you cry, but, after all, Jesus cried also. I always feel like those tears… it’s like Jesus is washing you. And after you have a good cry, no matter what, you feel cleansed. That’s why I tell people don’t ever be ashamed to cry. It’s a cleansing – and afterward you feel good. We cry if we’ve lost a loved one – to cancer or anything else – but God gives each of us a gift: the joy of remembrance. And the good memories almost always outweigh the bad.”
When Sandra remembers her own diagnosis and the feelings that accompanied it – as well as the feelings experienced by those who loved her – she can’t help but still feel so grateful that she was able to overcome a disease that took away so many loved ones in her life.
In 1973 – 10 years into her marriage with Clyde and mother to three young children – she began to have some irregularities in her health which prompted her to visit her gynecologist. After some testing, it was determined that she had cancer and would need a hysterectomy.
The news rocked her life: cervical cancer. She went through phases of denial, questioning whether to have the surgery her doctor had recommended, despite his strongly urging her to do so.
It was her husband who helped talk her into it, paving the way to make it happen. Shortly after the diagnosis, while she was working one day, Clyde sat down beside her and said: “I just left the doctor’s office, and we set up surgery for Monday.”
She agreed to do it, and the procedure was a success.
Three years later, in 1977, however, she’d have another scare.
“I was having pain under my arm pit and my left breast was sensitive,” Sandra recalls, explaining that she later would find a lump. A visit to the doctor and subsequently with a breast cancer specialist confirmed her suspicions.
The specialist told her the only way to know for sure whether the cancer was malignant or benign was to perform surgery, remove the lump and test it.
The surgeon prepared her and husband Clyde the night before, explaining that chances were he’d have to remove one of her breasts. A friend visited Sandra that evening. She gave Sandra a mother of pearl necklace – a piece of jewelry that had gotten her friend through a tough time.
Sandra prayed. Her friends prayed. Her church prayed.
The next morning after the surgery was over, she learned that the cancer was benign.
“Right then, I knew,” Sandra says. “I knew the power of prayer and healing.”
HE’S GOING TO WORK IT OUT
There is a moment that repeats itself every day in Sandra’s Strickland’s life. When the dawn breaks and the birds call to one another, she pulls open the curtain to let in the light. She takes in the sunrise, watches the rain fall or observes the clouds move across the tops of trees.
It doesn’t matter to her whether it’s a sunny, rainy or cloudy day.
“I thank Him for the rain, for the storms – whatever the weather may be,” she says. “He’s the one who knows what He’s doing. It’s all according to his purpose, and He’s going to work it out.”
Before going to the kitchen to make her coffee and begin the rest of her day, she says a prayer: “Thank you Lord for this day that you’ve made. Let me rejoice and be glad in it.”
Faith has been a big part of her life ever since childhood – even before she began attending church. She credits the childlike faith that began in her youth as one of the biggest reasons she was able to power through the struggles she’s faced.
When she was young, living with her parents in an apartment in Virginia, there was a church across the street that caught her attention. Specifically, the sound of the church bells ringing was music to her ears.
“Momma and daddy never went to church,” Sandra recalls. “But there was a big Baptist church across the street. I remember I would go to the window and watch families walk up the steps going into the church… holding hands, and I remember thinking ‘I wish that was me – my momma and daddy holding my hand. Taking me up the steps to go into that church.’”
Adds Sandra: “Momma would say to me, ‘Church is fixing to start.’ She knew I liked to go to that window and watch them go up the steps.”
Today, church and her faith are cornerstones of her life. The little girl listening to the church bells was a precursor to the woman who would battle cancer, use her faith to build up the lives of others, and bring to Gwinnett County the kind of charitable spirit that would impact the lives of thousands.
Randy Redner says there are three words that come to mind when he thinks of Sandra: faith, heart and compassion.
“[The Stricklands] definitely live out the notion of ‘to whom much is given, much
is required,’” says Redner who was first introduced to Sandra and Clyde Strickland while working as Executive Director for the Gwinnett County area of the American Cancer Society around 2005.
“Sandra really sees (giving) as a privilege and an honor… it’s a part of who she is,” Redner says.
“I’ve worked in the nonprofit (sector) more than 20 years… and there’s only a handful of people I’ve worked with who you see them truly intertwine their faith with who they are and what they do. She’s definitely one of them.”
THERE’S CERTAIN PEOPLE YOU’VE GOT TO STOP AND HELP
There is a moment that repeats itself in the lives of people all over the world. When leaving a grocery store, walking down the street or getting into our cars, someone approaches with a sign in their hands wearing an expression of defeat and humility.
“Veteran. Laid off. Please help.” “Hungry. Kids to feed.”
“Excuse me, can you spare some change?”
It happened to Sandra years back while shopping at Home Depot. She was driving out of the parking lot, with traffic in front of and behind her. She saw a man – looking distraught – sitting by himself on the curb. She kept driving because of all the traffic, then God spoke to her. She parked the car.
“There was something in his eyes,” she recalls.
She walked to a nearby restaurant, bought a sandwich and a drink, carrying them out to the man.
“I took the food to him. I said to him that it was meant to be that I give it to him,” she says. “And I gave him twenty dollars. He looked at me and said, ‘God bless you.’ When he said that, I had the best feeling in my heart that you can imagine.”
Adds Sandra: “There’s certain people you see in life who you’ve got to stop and help.”
There’s a verse in her Bible – one of many in the Strickland home, but this one is her favorite – with a note penciled upon the book’s opening pages. There, she’s written one of her favorite verses: 1 Timothy 6:17-18. She’s written beside the verse, “Instructions to the rich.”
Summarized, the verse advises those in this world who have riches to use what they have obtained to do good works.
Redner says the Stricklands have been doing just that for as long as he’s known them – going back to when he first met them in 2005. The American Cancer Society had come up with an idea of putting ACS “navigators” inside hospital systems, so that someone newly diagnosed with cancer would have someone they could speak with or visit, i.e., a “navigator.”
The opportunity to institute the program at then Gwinnett Medical Center arose, but a significant lead gift or donation was needed in order to get the initiative going.
“I knew of Sandra’s brush with cancer… but didn’t know her well at the time,” says Redner, who has since become very close with the Stricklands. “We needed a lead gift to get that first navigator into place, so I got an invitation to meet the Stricklands. They didn’t know me, and they didn’t blink an eye. They say, ‘why wouldn’t we do this?’ Clyde deferred to Sandra on it, because she was the cancer survivor, and I know they’ve gone on to do many more amazing things.”
Adds Redner: “The experience gave me a window into the kind of people the Stricklands are… and how big their hearts are around the subject of cancer patients.”
When it comes to cancer and those who have been diagnosed, Sandra stresses the importance of “taking care of your body as well as your soul.”
“I never thought that I would be 78 years old and still on this earth,” she says. “Here I was the first in my family to be diagnosed with cancer, and I’ve lost my brother, my momma, my daddy, two aunts and an uncle. Some people have the opportunity to live longer with it – to be able to say their goodbyes, to prepare their way – and some people do not.”
Adds Strickland: “So many more people are living longer today with cancer and most of them are believers also. They keep fighting and they keep running that race. I believe
a lot of times by being strong as a parent or brother or sister or friend (to those affected by it), it shows people that we have to keep fighting. Just like in Christianity you have got to keep moving and going and doing the right thing… it all comes back to faith.”