It’s been nearly 10 years since Anne Willis heard the news she had cancer.
As co-chair of this year’s 15th Anniversary event of East Lincoln’s Relay for Life — also headed by Sandy Hannigan — her goal is to continue encouraging the community, and entire county, to raise cancer funds so future generations, including her niece and nephew, will not have to worry about the disease.
“So they’ll never have to hear the words, ‘You have cancer,’” Willis said.
While the 48-year-old, who has chaired the annual event in past years, is a thyroid cancer survivor, she doesn’t like to tell people she’s in remission, she noted, since there’s a 70 percent chance the illness could later surface in another area of her body.
“I’ve had no reoccurrences,” she said, “but I don’t consider myself cured because it could always come back.”
Unlike some Relay for Life participants, who try to make the eastern county occasion a fierce competition each year against the Relay event in Lincolnton, Willis wants county residents to unite in their effort.
“We may be two different Relays,” she said, “but we are all one county.”
Leaders with East Lincoln’s effort united earlier this month for a special planning dinner.
So far, at least 16 teams have signed up to participate in the May event, which will take place at East Lincoln High School.
Last year, a total of 23 teams and 223 individuals, including 130 survivors, partook in the overnight ceremonies and fundraising.
With a target goal of more than $135,000 for 2014, funds fell short of $130,000 in 2013, Willis said, after event leaders set a goal of more than $147,000.
However, she has in no way been discouraged by past results since the East Lincoln community continues to top all other Relay events not only in the state but throughout most of the Southeast region, also including South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Willis, who started her venture with Relay for Life in Catawba County before transitioning to Lincolnton’s event and then her current role in Denver, feels connected to the universal affair since she’s personally battled the illness.
She was diagnosed in November 2004 following a doctor visit for a hysterectomy.
A knot on her neck concerned medical officials during the appointment.
They later opted to remove half of her thyroid since test results proved “inconclusive” regarding cancerous cells in the gland.
While a post-surgery test showed the thyroid to be non-cancerous, Willis said, doctors called her a day after the good news with completely different words.
“My whole heart just sank,” she said. “That was definitely an emotional day.”
She was immediately treated with a radioactive iodine pill containing the same amount of radiation as a daily chest X-ray for five years, Willis said.
Surgeons also “paralyzed” one of her vocal cords during the process, making it difficult for her to speak for long periods of time without losing her voice.
During her treatment, the McGuire Nuclear Station employee was not allowed to work at the Huntersville facility and also had to keep away from other people and wash her clothes separately from others in her household.
As a supporter of the battle against all kinds of cancer, Willis has never had a significant interest in organizations or events that focus on one particular type of the disease.
“It doesn’t make a difference what kind of cancer you have,” she said. “Relay for Life raises money for all kinds.”
Willis also praised her community for taking care of both survivors and newly diagnosed individuals by mowing lawns and preparing meals and transportation for anyone in need.
“We all rally around them,” she said.
East Lincoln’s 15th Annual Relay for Life will be May 9 & 10 at East Lincoln High School. A survivor dinner will be May 2 at Salem United Methodist Church in Denver.
For more information, visit relayforlife.org or email ELRelayforlife@gmail.com or call (704) 609-9953.