AUGUSTA — Over a thousand people turned out Saturday afternoon for an event that was meant to inspire hope for people suffering from cancer and showcase the research that’s being done at MaineGeneral Health’s Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in Augusta to find better treatments for that intractable illness.

Since 2000, MaineGeneral Health has been holding annual events like the one on Saturday, which are meant to honor cancer survivors.

It’s a particularly poignant subject in Maine, which has the highest cancer death rate in New England and the 12th-highest rate in the United States, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Everything,” said Sally Withee, a 75-year-old Palmyra woman, when asked what the day honoring cancer survivors means to people like her.

After Withee was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at the age of 64, she received a year of treatment — chemotherapy, radiation — at the Augusta institution and survived the disease. Ever since, she has missed only one of the annual events, when her husband’s ankle injury prevented them from attending.

She enjoys reconnecting with the nurses and other providers who helped her during her own battle. She also tries to speak with other cancer patients and survivors, given the relief such interactions have brought her.

“You listen to the other people, the encouragement the speakers give to other patients,” she said. “I’m just so grateful for all the care I got here.”

The Cancer Survivors Day event was attended by roughly 1,200 people and started early Saturday afternoon, with an hourlong opening ceremony followed by a couple hours for attendees to obtain health screenings, coffee, seafood stew and other resources.

The opening ceremony included presentations by two researchers from The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor who use genetic technology and have been working at the Augusta outpatient center through a partnership between the two groups. That partnership is being coordinated with oncologists from across the state, is partly funded by the Harold Alfond Foundation and is meant to enhance cancer diagnosis and treatment around the state.

So far, about 360 patients have enrolled in the program, said Dr. Jens Reuter, medical director of the Maine Cancer Center Genomics Initiative.

The goal of the partnership, Reuter told the audience, “is better outcomes for patients.”

Then three Maine residents who have survived cancer diagnoses gave speeches to the crowd, all inspired by the theme of this year’s event: “Hope changes everything.”

One of them, 39-year-old Jen Wade of Fairfield, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma earlier in her life, then survived it. Later, her son Nathan was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called Ewing sarcoma at the age of 4, and her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“Now Nathan is two years in remission, and my dad is doing well,” she told the crowd.

While all those struggles were difficult and terrifying for Wade’s family, she said that they did help her find “strength, faith and hope.” They also helped her see the importance of supporting others going through similar ordeals.

“While helping one person may not change the whole world, it could change the world for just one person,” she said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

 

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