The Julie Rogers “Gift of Life” organization honored nearly 150 breast and prostate cancer survivors from Southeast Texas during its annual Valentine Survivors’ Celebration in the Parkdale Mall Garden Court. Once again, Angel San Juan donned angel wings and a feather halo to emcee the program.

The event, sponsored by TOTAL Port Arthur Refinery, recognized the strength and courage of those who have fought valiantly in the battle against cancer. TOTAL’s critical assistance, both individually and through its partnership with BASF FINA Petrochemicals, LP in Miracle Match for Life, has made available nearly 800 free mammograms and helped extend the lives of 22 individuals who were diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer through “Gift of Life” screenings and provided access to follow-up care.

“I became personally involved with the ‘Gift of Life’ five years ago, and in that time, I’ve learned how much the program means to this area,” said Randy Sonnier, who, along with Pat Avery and Robin Eastham, represented TOTAL. “What stands out the most to me is the survivors’ courage, positive attitude and faith in God. What a blessing to have this organization in our community!”

Guest speakers Ania Bender, a breast cancer survivor, with her husband, Stephen, and Hal Clarke, M.D., a prostate cancer survivor and beloved physician, shared their heartwarming stories of hope and healing.

In December 2006, Bender, a wife, mother, and community volunteer, was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Facing months of cancer treatment, Bender had many fears, but she found strength through the love and support of her husband.

“I was informally assigned the job as caregiver, a job I was unprepared for. However, the reality was that my own wellbeing was meaningless without having Ania’s wellbeing restored,” Stephen stated. “While we experienced a loss of control over our lives, prayer provided a vehicle to remain positive and guided me as a caregiver while Ania battled this disease. I do not know what the future holds but I believe that we are on a path of healing and that we must go on enjoying life to its fullest, viewing life as a miracle each and every day.”

“I knew that I had a good caregiver in Stephen when he proceeded to wash my hair after surgery when I couldn’t do it for myself,” Bender said. “I would tell others who are faced with this disease to find something positive to focus on and that a little hair loss isn’t the worst thing in the world; and finally, laugh as much as you can because it sure beats crying.”

Clarke, who delivered hundreds of babies before his retirement several years ago, understands the critical role the “Gift of Life” plays in our region. By telling his story of survivorship, he is dedicated to helping men become better stewards of their own health, teaching them the importance of annual screenings.

“I fortunately had access to excellent medical care where so many do not,” Clarke said. “We are blessed to have the ‘Gift of Life’ because it creates an avenue to care for so many who do not have insurance.”

In recognition of the “Gift of Life” having surpassed the provision of 16,000 free mammograms since inception, Dillard’s General Manager, Sandy Drake, presented a special gift basket from Dillard’s, along with gift certificates from H-E-B, Pappadeaux’s, Hollywood Theatres, Holiday Inn Beaumont Plaza, Alden House Hair Salon, and Nails by Kerri Leonard, to the 16,000th mammogram recipient, Beaumont resident Gloria Renfro.

“I have no words to say how surprised and thankful I am to receive such wonderful gifts today. I feel so lucky to be number 16,000,” Renfro said. “I have several family members who have breast cancer right now, and I really appreciate the ‘Gift of Life’ giving me this free mammogram.”

Honored as “Gift of Life” Sweethearts were longtime supporters, Charline Dauphin, Sallye Keith, Aileen Larson, and Sandy Drake. Also recognized for their commitment to the organization were TOTAL, The Avon Foundation for Women, Dillard’s, Plastic Surgery Associates/Dr. and Mrs. Mark Larson, Capital One Trust Department, Ohmstede, Ltd., and Jasper’s Walk of Hope.

The celebration opened with the inspirational song, “Love Changes Everything,” by Lamar University music graduate, Nolan Thornal, and culminated with an uplifting survivors parade led by Gabriel Seymour, Chelsea Brown, and Krista Kessinger, three talented vocalists, who performed “That’s How You Know,” from the Disney movie, Enchanted. Guests enjoyed exciting door prizes and refreshments from Beaumont Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Blue Bell Creameries, L.P., Chick-fil-A Parkdale, Great American Cookies, Mary Mahlie, and Something Special Bake Shoppe.

In conjunction with the event, the “Gift of Life” also hosted a mobile mammography van site, sponsored by TOTAL, outside the Dillard’s store. Nearly 35 medically underserved Southeast Texas women received free mammograms on the UTMB van, with clinical breast exams provided inside Dillard’s.

In 2009, 11 people were diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer following free “Gift of Life” screenings, seven of whom were provided access to treatment during the year and four who are scheduled to receive treatment this year. Since the program’s inception, nearly 150 men and women have been impacted after receiving cancer diagnoses through “Gift of Life” screenings.

To find out if you qualify for a free “Gift of Life” mammogram, please call the program’s mammogram hotline at (409) 860-3369. For more information about Survivors’ Celebration, call the “Gift of Life” at (409) 833-3663 or toll-free (877)720-GIFT (4438).