Rachel Chapman, of Lincolnton, gathered with hundreds of her fellow small-town citizens Friday evening at the 20th anniversary celebration of Relay for Life of Lincolnton to celebrate with those who have beaten the “big C,” and also participate in the honorable trek around the courthouse for the annual survivor lap, the event highlight.
The 77-year-old arrived early to park her lawn chair along the sidewalk of downtown Lincolnton, wearing her survivor shirt and a white sash filled with a number of Relay pins she’s collected from various local events over the years.
She was proud to talk about her double remission from cancer, surviving breast cancer in 1988 and bone cancer more than a decade later in 2001.
She believed that by not keeping the details of her sick years hidden from others, she’s been able to fully heal, emotionally and mentally.
“If you talk about it,” Chapman said, “you can get through it better.”
A Lincolnton native and part of Lincolnton High School’s graduating class of 1955, she attends the annual celebration to remember her previous fight, cheer on others still battling and read the dozens of luminaries lit in memory of people who have passed from the disease.
While she has trouble walking, and uses a cane for day-to-day outings, she couldn’t be stopped from joining fellow survivors, completing the lap by riding on a golf cart.
Others maintained walkers, had caretakers push them in wheelchairs and leaned on friends and family members to carry them around the courthouse.
As the enthusiastic crowd watched and clapped with happy tears, they particularly increased their volume as a young boy, escorted by a large group of supporters wearing his name, “Austin,” on their bright yellow shirts, circled Court Square.
Chapman offered simple and straightforward advice for those still battling with cancer.
“Lean on the Lord,” she said.
She also encouraged those with good health to be thankful for it.
“I’ve seen so many who didn’t come out of (cancer),” she said.
The event commenced with a special singing of the National Anthem by the Lincolnton High School Choir and a presentation of colors by the West Lincoln High School Jr. ROTC.
Cancer survivor and former WBTV anchor/reporter John Carter — Lincolnton resident for some years now — addressed the city with a positive opening statement for the scores of survivors in the audience, who filled East Main Street for the length of at least a half-mile.
“You all look incredible,” he said. “I’m so proud to be a part of this…the best Relay for Life event in North Carolina.”
Lincolnton mayor John Gilleland followed the popular television newsman with the presentation of a proclamation stating city officials made May 2 and 3 official Relay for Life celebration days for the city.
More than 20 years ago, local resident Betty Jackson, a lung cancer survivor, generated the idea for a local Relay for Life event after visiting a similar celebration in Charlotte, event officials said.
Jackson and her daughter, Billye Roland, currently battling breast cancer, were the last two individuals to complete the survivor lap — Jackson, now 85 and using a walker, and Roland close beside her for the walk.
Fellow City of Lincolnton citizen Ron Ballard sat with church friends during the event, taking in the sights and sounds of the much-anticipated occasion.
He credited his surgeon with saving his life 22 years ago after learning he had prostate cancer.
“It was quite advanced,” he said. “If it had been any more advanced, I couldn’t have had surgery.”
A relative with medical expertise found the right surgeon for him, Ballard said, and took the risk of removing his prostate.
While he believed the cancer would never return, it again reared it ugly head seven years later. However, he was forced to wait three years before undergoing radiation treatment for the cancer, he said.
He noted how he’ll never forget the first time he heard the words he was sick; he likened his emotions, at the time, to millions of others across the world who sit speechless when they hear the life-changing news.
“We are at a loss,” Ballard said. “You think, ‘What do I do? ‘What do I do?’”
Penny Warren, of Lincolnton, was also on hand at the weekend event, celebrating eight years in remission after beating lung cancer in 2008, she said.
Doctors removed her upper left lung after locating a cancerous spot on the organ.
Warren noted she had gone in for a pre-operation appointment when medical officials discovered the spot.
“God was looking out for me,” she said.
Fortunately, she didn’t have to endure chemotherapy or radiation after surgery.
“I was lucky,” she said. “It was stage one.”
Warren urged all residents in the community to regularly schedule doctor appointments and always do what they can to stay healthy.