By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Some 14 years ago, Teri Ward and Liz Dawson were part of a small group of community advocates who helped bring Project Hope to life.
“The need was so great,” for people struggling with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, Teri Ward remembers. “It still is.”
For the 13th Festival of Hope on March 2, the two women will be more than just planning committee members. They are now survivors.
“This year, we’ll wear that ribbon, and they’ll call our names,” said Dawson, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2011. “I never expected to be one of those survivors.”
In so many ways, the survivors who have come to Festival of Hope over the years helped prepare Ward for the trials that came with cancer.
“I’ve learned so much from them,” said Ward, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “I’ve seen people battle and survive with grace and dignity. I was able to draw from that.”
Their cancer journeys have highlighted the importance of the work of Festival of Hope. They’ve seen first hand the costs of cancer care can be staggering.
“If I didn’t have health insurance, I don’t know where I would be,” Ward said.
The programs that receive grant money from Festival of Hope do so much good work to help people with cancer, diabetes and heart disease get through treatment and continue to manage their disease.
“We just need to raise more money,” Dawson said. “We have so many (grant) requests we can’t do as much as we’d like.”
Ward, who works at Sunshine Mills, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer in April after an annual checkup.
She’s considered atypical because she had few risk factors for cervical cancer. She didn’t have full-fledged symptoms when she was diagnosed, but she said she knew something was off because her body had been telling her something wasn’t quite right.
“You’ve got to listen to your body,” Ward said.
The whirlwind that kicked in as soon as she was diagnosed nearly knocked her flat. She had to make decisions about to which oncologic gynecologist she wanted to be referred very quickly.
“I’m fiercely independent,” Ward said. “But I had to ask my family and friends for help. … It was very humbling.”
She went through surgery in Memphis, and had to lean hard on those family and friends as she recovered.
“This isn’t just my disease, it belongs to everyone I care about, everyone I love, everyone I work with,” Ward said.
Fortunately her cancer was still in Stage 1 and didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation. She’s had checkups every three months since.
With her type of cancer, she faces a 20 percent chance of recurrence.
“You have to visit that fear, but you can’t dwell there,” Ward said.
Like Ward, Dawson was diagnosed through routine preventive screening.
“I didn’t feel anything at all,” in her monthly breast exams, said Dawson, who is the director of NMMC Community Health.
When radiologist Dr. Douglas Clark called her back to look at her images from her mammogram, “my stomach hit the floor,” Dawson said.
There was clearly a spot that wasn’t there the previous year. The next day she went for a biopsy. Then she got the call from surgeon Dr. David Gilliland.
“‘I’m sorry Liz, it’s cancer,’ he said.”
Dawson said she surprised herself by meeting her breast cancer diagnosis with a let’s-get-down-to-business attitude.
“I thought if I got the phone call I would go to pieces, and I didn’t,” Dawson said. “A peace came over me that God would see me through.”
She leaned on her husband Dave Dawson, her adult children Lesley and David, her colleagues at Community Health and her church family at Parkway Baptist. Her sisters helped by hosting brother Jimmy, who has Down syndrome.
She had a lumpectomy at the end of May. Later, in June, with her doctors’ blessings, she went on an eight-day mission trip to Bali, Indonesia, where she worked with children teaching them about teeth brushing and Bible stories.
“We had been working for over a year to raise the money,” Dawson said. “It was something I felt called to do. I didn’t want surgery to interrupt that if it could be helped.”
When she came back, she started seven weeks of radiation treatments.
“You realize people love you and want good things for you,” Dawson said. “There are times you do feel alone, but you’re not alone.”