By Kristin Schultz
REXFORD — “Cancer came like a common criminal — unwelcome and unexpected. Like a thief, at first it took my courage, my self-confidence and my optimism. At first I felt like a victim.
“Then, maybe because there are lawyers in my family or because I teach third-graders who have a strong sense of justice, I decided to defend myself — me versus cancer.”
Gina Brown, a teacher at Glendaal Elementary School in Scotia-Glenville was diagnosed with breast cancer in August of 2016. She addressed the crowd of 120 and told her story at the annual Survivor Day Celebration hosted by New York Oncology Hematology on June 2 at The Edison Club.
“It gives patients and family something to believe in and look forward to,” said Danielle Landona, one of the organizers. “From the moment you’re diagnosed, you’re a survivor.”
The focus on surviving and thriving in the midst of difficulty was the theme of the day. It was a celebration of life from the speakers to the games and prizes.
The staff at the Clifton Park and Rexford offices collect donations for the gift baskets that each patient will bring home. Nurses and other staff members also attend the event, giving the patients and themselves the chance to interact outside the medical office setting.
“I’m taking care of a patient, not a disease,” said RN/OCN Amanda Burgess. “I’ve had family members diagnosed with cancer, so I know about it first-hand. I can offer support to patients and their families.”
Brown told her story of her fight with cancer, holding to the courtroom metaphor the whole way. She built a defense team she called her SALT (Support and Love Tribe) with whom she would communicate updates and receive encouragement.
She did research, gathered information and collaborated with specialists. She felt her courage slowly returning.
She collected evidence of her strength, including a dress she bought the day after she was diagnosed. She wore it to her appointments and now calls it her survivor dress.
Another piece of evidence was a pair of diamond earrings from her husband, Pete. One morning as she was getting ready for work, large clumps of hair fell out. She decided to shave her head that night. She invited their children and friends. Pete gave her the earrings. They would shine and sparkle all the more against Brown’s bare head.
Brown did not take leave from her job and her third-graders gave her a quilt to keep warm during her treatments — another piece of evidence of her survival.
As the evidence of support and making strides piled up, Brown told the audience she feels increasingly more brave, self-confident and optimistic.
Her story is not unique. The room at Survivor Day was filled with people fighting and supporting one another.
NYOH has hosted Survivor Day events for more than two decades, giving patients and caregivers the chance to enjoy time with one another and have some fun.
“Today we’re celebrating you,” said hematologist Courtney Bellamo. “You are more than surviving, you’re thriving. You’ve figured out how to enjoy life in spite of terrible circumstances.”