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Area cancer survivors find hope, fight back with Relay for Life
Theresea Bennett and Sybil Schneider tell their tales and share volunteer efforts with ACS
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Theresea Bennett is a cancer survivor, and to give back she works for Relay for Life.

Relay for Life of Hall County
When: 7 p.m. to midnight Friday, May 12
Where: University of North Georgia Gainesville campus, 3820 Mundy Mill Road, Oakwood
More info: rena.pendley@cancer.org, 770-297-1176 or www.secure.acsevents.org/site/SPageServer/?pagename=relay

 

American Cancer Society
Address: 2565 Thompson Bridge Road, Suite 114, Gainesville
Phone: 800-227-2345
Website: www.cancer.org

Friends of Faith, Hope, Love
What: Theresea Bennett’s Relay for Life team is hosting a mini-golf fundraising tournament
When: Friday, April 28 from 8:00 – 10:00pm
Where: The Oaks, 3709 Whiting Road, Gainesville
Cost: $25 for a team of four and includes one raffle ticket per person and a goodie bag of glow-in-the-dark items
More info: 770-297-1220 or Theresea.Bennett@cancer.org

As she stepped onto the track in June 2010 for her first Relay for Life, Theresea Bennett felt overwhelmed.

For the first time, she saw how many people were affected by cancer.

“You kind of have tunnel vision. You don’t realize how many people have cancer or are affected by it,” she said.

But her blinders were removed that day at Road Atlanta in Braselton, and her reaction was apparent. That’s when a stranger spoke to her.

“There was a lady walking beside me, and she could tell it was my first time,” Bennett said, indicating she wore a scarf on her head after losing her hair to chemotherapy. “She looked at me and said ‘I’ve been where you are, and you’ll get through this.’”

Bennett never got the woman’s name. But the conversation, Relay for Life and the American Cancer Society’s programs changed Bennett’s career path.

Bennett, who was working for Wayne Farms in Oakwood at the time of her diagnosis, is now the office manager and event coordinator for the American Cancer Society in Hall County.

The 49-year-old Gainesville native started volunteering at the nonprofit in 2011. That inspired her to apply for a job with the cancer society in Gwinnett County. Then last year, she applied for the open position at the Hall County branch.

“It was 10 minutes from my house,” she said, noting the shorter commute.

Bennett was hired and now helps cancer patients who walk into the society’s office off Thompson Bridge Road in Gainesville. And her survivor’s perspective allows her to connect with others on a different level.

BENNETT’S BATTLE

Bennett was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in February 2010 after experiencing some health problems.

“The doctors thought it was just cysts on my ovaries,” she said.

Cysts are noncancerous sac-like structures filled with fluid, pus or other gaseous material. But a surgery revealed it was cancer. About 22,440 women will receive a new diagnosis of ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society website (www.cancer.org). About 14,080 women will die from ovarian cancer, the website said.

Bennett was floored by her results, even though her paternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer in 2005.

“I thought ‘what are we going to do?’” she asked, referencing her husband of now 28 years and her two teenagers. “I’ve got kids that need me.”

That’s when her oncologist, Dr. Andrew Green of Gainesville, answered.

“Dr. Green told me that we were going to fight this and I’d be OK,” Bennett said.

She believed him and they developed a plan. Surgery removed the cancer, and 16-18 rounds of weekly chemotherapy followed from April to August.

But Bennett had her doubts.

“After the first treatment I didn’t know if I was going back,” she said, pointing out the chemo gave her an 85 percent chance cancer wouldn’t come back, whereas she had a 50 percent chance without it, according to her doctors.

A nurse prescribed Bennett anti-nausea medicine. It helped, but the nurse or doctors couldn’t offer relief from the fatigue.

“The hardest part was being so tired,” Bennett said.

Luckily, she had a support system, including her husband, daughter and son.

Her husband, Michael, said it was hard to see her deal with an illness that made her sick and tired, but he was impressed by her strength through it all.

“She was extremely strong through the whole thing,” he said. “It was a great experience seeing how strong she was and knowing her fear of contracting (cancer).”

Their daughter, Jessica Hahn, agreed.

“She amazed me with how strong she was and how much she wanted to beat this,” Hahn said.

Her experiences help her sympathize with those who walk into the American Cancer Society.

Bennett’s supervisor, Lee Hennessey, said hiring her was a “win-win” for the organization.

“She brings more compassion and knowledge of what the person is going through when they walk through the office,” she said. “She can relate to people who are obviously distraught. And she knows how to comfort them and gives them all of the information the American Cancer Society has.”

And those who Bennett and the American Cancer Society have helped are grateful.

SCHNEIDERS STORY

Sybil Schneider is one such grateful person.

The 30-year-old Lula woman was diagnosed three years ago with lymphoma after a dental appointment revealed her gums were swollen.

Because of her family’s history — a maternal aunt, grandmother and great-grandfather died of cancer — she immediately turned to a volunteer at the nonprofit. It was her mother.

But when she called her mother to tell her the news, her mother didn’t hear her the first time. So she had to repeat it.

“It was like a cartoon moment, and I burst out laughing,” Schneider said, adding it was a laugh she desperately needed.

Once her mother realized the situation, she launched into her protective and proactive mother-mode.

“I pooled all of my resources and got her seen (by a doctor) first thing,” her mother, Gail Schneider, said.

The pair, plus Sybil’s doctors, devised a plan, including three rounds of chemotherapy, seven lumbar punctures and two weeks of radiation. Along the way, they used the American Cancer Society’s resources, especially the hair pieces on hand.

“I wanted to look at the wigs,” Sybil said.

She and Gail went to the office and tried on several. And when Sybil’s hair started to fall out, her mother and father jumped into action.

“I trimmed her hair,” Gail said. “And then my husband buzzed it.”

However, Sybil didn’t wear wigs often.

“It was so itchy,” she said, explaining she wore ball caps, scarfs or nothing.

WALKING IN RELAY

The family also continued their tradition of walking in the annual Relay for Life, which they started after Gail lost her mother, aunt and grandfather to cancer in a five-month stretch in 1984.

“Cancer was attacking my family. I had to fight back,” Gail said. “And (Relay for Life) is a fun way to fight cancer.”

Gail, who is a board member with the organization, explained the money raised at Relay for Life helps fund the cancer society’s programs as well as research. She has seen its benefits.

Her mother and sister had ovarian cancer. Her mother only survived 1 year and 3 months after diagnosis. Her sister survived for five years because of the advancements in cancer drugs.

She pointed out her mother looked older than her 47 years at the time of her death. Plus, she was in a lot of pain at the end. Her sister looked healthier during her fight, Gail said.

“That’s how I can see the difference research has made,” she said.

So each year, the Schneiders and Bennetts participate in Relay for Life. The most important sight for them is the survivor walk.

“It’s all about the survivor lap, and it is amazing to see all of Hall County come out and cheer them on,” Gail said.

Hahn agreed, especially since her mother and paternal grandmother who beat breast cancer walk.

“I get chills every year in the survivors’ lap,” she said. “I have two amazing, strong women making this lap, and I am overcome with gratitude and can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see them walking in the survivor lap.”

And that lap, along with the all-night event, allows survivors, their caregivers, families and friends to contribute and fight against the disease.

“Relay lets you feel like you can do something,” Bennett said.

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