When cancer hits, it doesn’t just change the life of the patient – it changes the lives of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors. Here at the Cancer Institute of Greenville Health System, that life change has fueled a fire in clinical staff, patients, families and supporters to help build the future of cancer care through cancer research and survivorship programs. How? Through the annual Dragon Boat Upstate Festival. Click the video above to learn more about this unforgettable event, which has raised over $2 million (and counting!) for cancer patients and families.
Larry and Carmen Brotherton became an integral part of the Dragon Boat Upstate Festival, after Carmen’s ovarian cancer diagnosis and recovery.
Carmen Brotherton nearly walked out of her annual checkup without requesting the simple test that may have saved her life. Brotherton’s gynecologist had just conducted her regular exam and found everything to be normal.
“Before my appointment, a friend had recommended I have an ovarian cancer screening test,” said Brotherton. “It was as if a little voice whispered a reminder in my ear as I was leaving the doctor’s office.”
The test for ovarian cancer is not a standard test and not normally covered by insurance, but it was the best $100 Brotherton ever spent.
The gynecologist explained the test and added it to Brotherton’s chart. A week later, she received a phone call while driving home from the beach. The test showed she had elevated levels of CA-125, indicating possible ovarian cancer. Immediately upon her return, she underwent a vaginal ultrasound, which revealed two ovarian cysts with possible fluid buildup – a second indicator that cancer might be present. Brotherton then was referred to Larry Puls, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist with the Cancer Institute of Greenville Health System (GHS).
“Surgery to remove both my ovaries was scheduled for the next week, but even for that short time, the waiting was stressful,” remarked Brotherton. “Results of the surgery confirmed my fears. I had cancer, but I was incredibly lucky to be diagnosed at stage 1A, the earliest stage.”
The early detection may have saved her life. Like most patients with ovarian cancer in early stages of the disease, Brotherton did not exhibit any symptoms, and her cancer was undetectable through a physical exam.
Had she not requested the test, it may not have been detected until it reached an advanced stage.
Thankfully, the cancerous tissue was confined to one ovary. To be safe, Brotherton’s surgeon removed both ovaries as planned. Her oncologist then recommended a course of chemotherapy to kill any stray cells that may have escaped.
“I was overcome with tears of joy,” said Brotherton’s husband, Larry, upon the news that the cancer had not spread. “I felt helpless when Carmen was diagnosed and I had to leave her in the hands of others. But God was with us, and our prayers were answered through the healing hands of her doctors.”
After chemo, Brotherton entered Moving On, an oncology rehabilitation program the GHS Cancer Institute offers in conjunction with the University of South Carolina Department of Exercise Science. She began the program to regain her strength and energy after chemo – and found something more: a way to give back to cancer patients and families like hers through the Dragon Boat Upstate Festival.
“The Moving On staff and patients were so passionate and motivated,” she said. “They combined the exercise and mind/body programs of the rehabilitation program with passionate social fundraising for the GHS Cancer Center to create the most fun event I’ve ever been a part of!”
Husband Larry sponsored a dragon boat, B-aware, for her and her new friends at the Ovarian Cancer Foundation. The boating festival became a bonding experience for the Brotherton family as the couple’s three children, eight grandchildren and extended family came to support B-aware.
“The festival was a great, fun time,” Carmen said. “There was so much camaraderie among and between the teams. We were all united to support cancer research and treatment plans in the Upstate. I was most touched when I saw the doctors and nurses from the Cancer Center working with patients and supporters in a different environment. Knowing they really care is powerful. They cared enough to come to Lake Hartwell on a weekend, donate their time and money, and paddle their tails off in a boat race!”
The Dragon Boat Upstate Festival isn’t the only way Brotherton gives back. When she finished chemo treatments, she started volunteering at the Cancer Center, helping around the office and keeping patients company as they undergo long treatments.
“When patients learn I’m a survivor, that I was sitting in that treatment chair not long ago, it gives them hope,” she said. “This experience has given me a new purpose: helping people fight cancer.”
Connie Edney’s decision to go through with what she thought was an inconvenient doctor’s appointment ended up changing her life.
Here’s Connie’s story below, in her own words:
“In late 2007 I almost skipped the appointment that saved my life. I had just started a new job, and didn’t want to take a few hours off to get my scheduled mammogram. My husband actually had to convince me to go. A few days after the mammogram, I received a call from my doctor’s office…the scan showed abnormalities. I went back for another mammogram and an ultrasound where doctors found two suspicious spots. The spots were biopsied and I nervously awaited the results. What a way to spend the holidays.
I received the call I was dreading a couple days later…I had breast cancer. I cried for the next two days. My diagnosis was “invasive ductal carcinoma, hormone positive,” one of the most common types of invasive breast cancers. Over the next few weeks I had a ct, bone scan, and numerous blood tests. The cancer was stage 2 and hadn’t spread. The fact that it hadn’t spread was a Christmas blessing I’ll never forget.
I was scheduled for surgery January 24, 2007. I decided on a double mastectomy because I wanted to minimize the chance of a recurrence. It was a good decision; in the short time between diagnosis and surgery, the cancer had spread to a third spot and to a lymph node. If my husband hadn’t insisted I get a mammogram on time, it could have been much worse. His persistence saved my life.
Six weeks after surgery I started six rounds of chemotherapy with Jeff Edenfield, M.D., one round every three weeks. I couldn’t have asked for a better oncologist. Dr. Edenfield and the staff at Greenville Health System (GHS) were so kind and encouraging. Every time I received chemo at the Cancer Center of Greenville Health System I felt like I had a whole team of cheerleaders behind me. Every one of them really cared and were pulling for me to beat this awful disease.
I started losing my hair after the very first chemo treatment. Emotionally, that was one of the most difficult times for me. I was losing my hair, I had been through a double mastectomy – I hardly felt like a human being, let alone a woman. My husband suggested that we cut off what hair was left to spare me from having to watch it fall out over the next few weeks. It was a gesture of kindness from him that I really needed, and I let him cut my hair.
When chemo ended, I started a drug to reduce my estrogen levels and hopefully prevent a cancer recurrence. The new drugs caused a lot of joint and muscle pain, and I was constantly tired from the lasting effects of chemotherapy, so I became very depressed. Even with a supportive family I felt alone. My prayers were answered when, on a follow up visit to the GHS Cancer Institute, I saw a sign for a breast cancer support group. The support group filled my need to be around people who had the same challenges, and we really uplifted each other. I still attend to help others through their cancer journey as I was helped.
My journey with cancer has been long and painful, but I’m finally able to put it behind me and live my life again. Last year I had reconstructive surgery which went a long way toward helping me feel whole again. Now that I’ve won my cancer battle, I want to give my all to help others fighting the disease.
Cancer doesn’t stand still. It will somehow affect everyone in our community. Join me now in helping GHS change, and save, lives.”
The Winn family lost one of their own to cancer when Karl Winn passed away in September 2007. In his memory, they brought their community together to help others through cancer research.
When a loved one loses their fight with cancer, it leaves a family devastated, searching for answers to universal questions: Why did my loved one get cancer? Why did they not catch it in time? Why did it have to be my loved one? When Karl Stephen Winn lost his fight with cancer, his family and friends asked all the same questions. Then they asked one more: What can I do to make a difference?
In Karl’s memory, his wife Janet, along with their sons, extended family, and friends, founded Winn The Fight, a faith-based effort dedicated to funding cancer research. They took a particular interest in the Clinical Research Unit at the Cancer Institute of Greenville Health System (GHS) , now a part of the Institute for Translational Oncology Research (ITOR), and decided to focus their efforts on funding a regional “tissue bank.”
The tissue bank in question is the Total Cancer Care Program, a partnership between GHS and the University of South Carolina to create a tissue repository that will eventually store cancer tissues from all surgical sites within the state. Each sample will be attached to relevant information about the patient and the cancer such as tumor location and type, age, sex, and treatments/outcomes. The information would be used to track the effectiveness of current and new treatments for all cancer types and to better understand and treat cancers through their genetic profiles. The tissue bank will be a powerful new tool for researchers in the fight against cancer.
The Winn Family believes in this program and all it will to do improve cancer care. They reached their goal of establishing the Winn the Fight Tissue Bank in 2012 after raising $250,000 through a tennis tournament, cookout, Dragon Boat Upstate Festival, a gift-wrapping fundraiser, and generous gifts from supporters.
“No matter how tragic something is in your life, you can find the good in it,” said Janet Winn. “Our faith and family grew stronger. Winn the Fight has been our silver lining. We have found that in doing for others, you find the best medication for your grief. We hope our family, church, friends, and community will keep backing our effort to find every inch of our silver lining.”