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Cancer survivors to open Relay with walk

LAWRENCEVILLE - Brent Tisdale, a coach at Grayson High School, was sick for eight months. When the constant flu-like symptoms finally caused him to miss a football game, he knew it was time to see a doctor.

Tisdale, then 27, was tested for several illnesses before doctors discovered what was bothering him.

It was stage four colon cancer.

About 15 percent of those diagnosed with the most advanced stage survive, so, statistically, Tisdale shouldn't be here.

But he is. Sharing his story - his triumph - with the world as part of the upcoming 15th annual Gwinnett County Relay for Life. At 7 p.m. Friday, Tisdale will take a victory lap during Relay's opening event, the Survivor Walk.

Tisdale will be in the company of nearly 2,000 other survivors and their care givers. Men and women of all ages who have met, head-on, the threat of every type of cancer imaginable and won.

Unlike Tisdale, Christy Belbey didn't have any warning signs. Relatively young and seemingly healthy, the 40-year-old Dacula High School French teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2008 during a routine checkup. With no family history of the disease and no symptoms, Belbey had no reason to suspect anything was wrong. She credits early detection with saving her life. Today she is cancer-free.

About seven months ago, 47-year-old Connie Fancher went to the emergency room with extreme abdominal pain. She had been experiencing symptoms for some time but kept telling herself it was something harmless. Hemorrhoids, most likely.

"Oh, I thought, you know, I'll ignore it and it'll go away," she said. "It didn't. I got a good dose of reality."

"It" turned out to be cancer in her anus, colon and liver. Doctors told Fancher she has a 20 percent chance of survival.

"This is the kind of cancer people don't like to talk about," she said. "It's an embarrassment issue, I think; people don't like to get checked out."

Ewing sarcoma is a form of bone cancer most often found in teenage boys, so you can imagine the surprise Jennifer Adkins had when her daughter, Alexis Hart, was diagnosed with the disease at just 2 years old.

"We were stunned," Adkins said. "She lost all her hair. But she was a pretty bald-headed baby. She was always happy."

Despite having no elbow (doctors removed her infected humerus as part of her treatment that also included more than a year of chemotherapy), Hart lives a normal, active life. The Glenn C. Jones Middle School sixth-grader can't do cartwheels, but she cheers and plays softball just fine.

Friends affectionately call her "Noodle" because of her ability to twist her left arm like a string of cooked spaghetti. Hart, now 11, smiles easily and laughs often, even when recalling the hospital stay that children shouldn't have to endure, much less remember.

The day before her 23rd wedding anniversary, Crystal Blackwood, 50, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"It was like my whole world fell apart," she said.

Today, the wife and mother of three grown children shows no signs of the disease.

Betty Andrews, 54, has been in breast cancer remission for four years. She uses her circumstances to spread the word about cancer to the congregation of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Norcross. Through the Survivor Walk, she hopes to reach others.

"I just want everyone to know there is help out there," she said. "You just have to keep the faith and know that there's hope."

Relay for Life is about celebrating, remembering and fighting back.

Survivors of all stages of treatment will gather at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds on Friday in a show of unity. Some have been cancer-free for years while some, like Fancher, don't know what tomorrow will bring other than another round of chemotherapy.

"It's just a waiting game, you know?" Fancher said.

Fighting an uphill battle, she is thankful for every new sunrise. She celebrates, she continues to fight.

One of her daughters is too young to understand what's happening; the other, Fancher said, doesn't want to know. But cancer, like any other enemy, has to be confronted. The thousands who will participate in the 2009 Relay will do just that.

Steve Hansen, 64, beat prostate cancer. Jeff Fawbush, 37, survived testicular cancer. Teresa Moore, 45, beat breast cancer - twice. They share a bond and stand together with a common message on behalf of cancer survivors everywhere: Celebrate. Remember. Fight back.