Sonic Automotive corrals partners to support the American Cancer Society
Photos by Green Valley Photography
Guests dressed in their favorite jeans and boots to fight cancer at the Charlotte Cattle Baron’s Ball, held at Churchill Stables, the private farm of Speedway Motorsports’ CEO Bruton Smith, on November 14, 2015.
This cowboy-chic affair, now in its second year in Charlotte, raised more than $600,000 last year for the American Cancer Society, earning itself a spot in the “Top Ten” for most funds raised out of more than 50 Cattle Baron events across the country. The funds are used for research, early detection, advocacy, prevention, education and programs that assist cancer patients and their families.
Presented by Cox Automotive, this year’s event included a cocktail reception, a wine wall, live and silent auctions, which featured amazing prizes ranging from gift baskets and dinner gift certificates, to resort packages and a Ford F-150 truck, donated by Sonic Automotive.
During the evening, a winner was also drawn for the $25/ticket Car Raffle. The lucky winner was able to select from a 2015 Toyota Camry, a 2015 Chevrolet Camaro, a 2015 Cadillac ATS, a 2015 Infiniti Q50, a 2015 Hyundai Sonata, a 2015 BMW 320i or a 2015 MINI Hardtop, courtesy of Sonic Automotive.
The Ball always attracts some of the biggest names in country music and this year was no different, as multi-platinum, CMA and ACM award-winning recording artist Tracy Lawrence provided the live entertainment. With more than 20 songs on the Billboard charts and 18 number one singles, guests danced the night away to hits from Lawrence’s 22-year career.
Jim Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises, a privately-held communications, media and auto services company, was also recognized as the 2015 Cattle Baron’s Ball honoree. Kennedy, who started as a production assistant with Cox in 1972, has been chairman and CEO for the past 28 years and has increased the company’s revenue from $1.8 billion to $15 billion during his tenure.
The event was made possible by the generosity and commitment of all of the 2015 sponsors. Major sponsors included Cox Automotive as Presenting, Sonic Automotive and AW Collision as Diamond, and Novant Health as Platinum. Additional high level sponsors included Cars.com, Perma Plate, Pennzoil, Audi of America, Inc., Bank of America Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust, Dealer.com, EasyCare, and Wier Enterprises.
Sponsorship opportunities for the 2016 event are available for every budget and include overall event sponsorships and naming opportunities from the valet station to the stage. For more information on these opportunities, please visit www.charlottecattlebaronsball.org.
Patrons are also able to contribute to the cause by reserving tables, making company matches or purchasing “Red Roses of Courage.” In addition to symbolizing love being stronger than thorns, the roses honor courageous fighters, survivors, caregivers and loved ones who have lost their battle with cancer.
Dowd and Webb Simpson want you to know about the best kept secret in our community
It’s a dark, damp Sunday afternoon during the twirl of Hurricane Joaquin. While most of Charlotte is huddled around their TVs watching the Panthers take their fourth consecutive win, Antonia “Neet” Childs is cleaning, painting, and repairing her new space at a rundown abandoned church on 15th Street in NoDa. Here, girls who she refers to as “misplaced entrepreneurs” will come seeking guidance, motivation, and most of all, safety.
The girls being served at Neet’s non-profit, Market Your Mind, Not Your Body (MYM), are in grave danger. They are young girls who are experiencing or at great risk for commercial sexual exploitation and domestic minor sex trafficking. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurs when individuals buy, trade, or sell sexual acts with a child. Domestic minor sex trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a minor for the purposes of a commercial sex act.
It’s a life Neet knows well, because it used to be hers. At 16 years old, Neet moved with her family from Buffalo, NY to Charlotte. Typical of most teenage girls, she was at odds with her mother when a man 20 years her senior began visiting her at work and befriending her. Positioning himself as a father figure, he began a grooming process designed to make her dependent, loyal, and indebted. He began giving Neet money in denominations of hundred dollar bills, which to a young, poor teenager was an extraordinary amount. Neet would take the money home to her mother to help the family with expenses.
Shortly thereafter, he began sexually trafficking her, acting as what is more commonly referred to as her pimp. And Neet was not his only victim. Her pimp, a college graduate and businessman, was marketing nearly 70 girls and women to prominent Charlotte men.
“This is something that is happening 365 days a year. While I’m sitting here with you, this is happening,” says Neet.
And it’s happening right here. North Carolina has consistently been listed in the top ten states for human trafficking, with Charlotte ranking in the top eight cities nationally in the trafficking of minors.
After a few years, Neet was able to escape her pimp but continued in prostitution, even recruiting other girls to work for her as well. The income she became accustomed to, which at one point reached $800 per hour, was too hard to give up. Having been forced into the sex trafficking industry as a young, impressionable teenager, she knew no other way.
“Living in this economy, if you’re not college educated, if you’re not set up, what do you do?” said Neet.
While Neet says there are a lot of girls who fall victim to “gorilla pimps” where they are beaten and forced into sex acts for nominal sums of money that goes directly back to their pimps, a lot of the sex trafficking clientele are high paying professionals – business owners, bankers, and attorneys.
“To be honest, I keep certain things out of my story because I know I’m dangerous,” says Neet, almost hesitant to continue. “When people ask me why I didn’t get my pimp arrested, well, because he graduated from App State and had been in a fraternity.” In her mind, his status elevated him to be more powerful and more believable.
Eventually, Neet met Brian Gunter, her co-founder in MYM, who slowly encouraged her to explore her passions and back away from a life of prostitution.
“I had things I wanted to do. I always had a passion for baking and having my own business. But I didn’t have any examples around me at that time,” says Neet.
With Brian’s encouragement Neet began to make cakes. “I wasn’t confident enough to sell them, so I started giving them away to community centers and shelters.”
Slowly she started to grow the business she always wanted and launched Neet’s Sweets, but struggled to keep from relapsing back to prostitution. “I had to make a transition from making $800 an hour to selling a cake for $35,” says Neet. “The part of my story that I don’t say a lot is that it is a struggle, it is a fight. You have to want to change. No one can rescue you or take you out of anything.”
It is this first hand experience that makes Neet uniquely positioned to reach the girls she now serves.
It Started Over Cakes
At 22, having stepped away from “the life” as she calls it, Neet started teaching cake decorating classes to young girls in community centers and low income schools. It was in one of those classes that she realized what had happened to her as a teenager was happening to others. Girls in her class would open up and discuss things going on in their lives and at home.
Then during one class, a girl who had been consistently attending didn’t show up.
“We later found out that she had been recruited by a pimp. And she was only in the 6th grade here in Charlotte,” says Neet. “I decided I wasn’t going to let these young girls slip through my fingers. So I used my cakes and sweets as a conversation piece.”
From there she began getting involved in organizations where she could help – volunteering as a rape crisis companion with Safe Alliance and forging a relationship with NC Stop Human Trafficking. She opened her home to sex trafficking victims looking for a way out and gave them work at Neet’s Sweets. In 2011, Neet was honored with the Prevention and Intervention Service Award from Safe Alliance and joined Safe Place’s board of directors.
It was through this community work that Neet was introduced to pro-golfer Webb Simpson and his wife, Dowd, almost five years ago. Dowd had recently returned from a trip overseas with Love 146, which works to abolish child trafficking and exploitation. She and Neet met over coffee where Neet shared her story and vision for MYM which was struggling at the time to gain footing and push forward. Dowd immediately knew she wanted to help.
“Being involved in organizations is important, but usually when I get behind causes it’s because of the person more than anything,” says Dowd. “That’s the reason I got behind the cause, because of Neet. What I saw in her, she sees in these girls.”
“It’s funny, around this time that they met, Dowd and I had just gotten married and we were talking a lot about spiritual giftings and what we were passionate about,” says Webb. “But the world seemed so big and I seemed so small – what kind of impact can I really have? I didn’t know where to start. And this seemed like an answered prayer God was kind of handing us.”
“Because they supported me, I felt such an accountability to also protect them and their hearts as well,” says Neet. “If I didn’t get that support at that time, I don’t know where I’d be.”
The Foster Care Pipeline
About 95% of the girls that reach the MYM program are coming out of the foster care system. There seems to be a persistent cycle where a young girl clashes with her mother or foster parent, runs away, and typically within 48 hours, they are encountering someone who says you don’t have to go back there, I’ll take care of you.
“By the time they come to us, they’ve been in a bunch of foster homes that didn’t work, they’ve been in detention facilities, they’ve pretty much given up,” says Neet.
Sometimes it’s the cycle of running away from foster home after foster home, and sometimes the trafficking begins inside of the foster home. In an interview with the Council for Children’s Rights, “Crystal” tells of her entry into sex trafficking.
“A guy offered her $1,500 and (my foster mom) said, ‘Crystal, we are going to be out on the streets. Can you please do this? Can you please do this?’ And I did it. After that, she expected it. She told me if I didn’t contribute to her in that way, I was out. I had no place else to live.”
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in 2012 67% of young people reported missing and likely trafficked were in the care of social services or foster care at the time.
But once these minors turn 18, they are aged out of that foster care system with little to no support or assistance. In one day she goes from a sex trafficked minor, to a prostitute, and therefore, a criminal.
“We’ve been doing this for eight years and it’s become clear that the huge piece is foster care,” says Neet. “It’s not to say that the people in place aren’t doing their job but they’re overworked and we need more resources in the community to support this population. It’s a unique population and not everyone is equipped to address it.”
It is a population that can be tough to understand. Webb admits it wasn’t until he heard one of the girls in the MYM program speak at an event, that he fully understood their situation.
“Her father was gone, her mother was a drug addict, she’s the oldest child,” says Webb. “Here she is as a 15 or 16 year old, examining her family and realizing she has to be the one to take care of them. But she’s not going to go work for $5 an hour. In her 16 year old mind, she sees one way to take care of her family. So there’s that almost innocent piece of it.”
MYM is the only survivor led program in North Carolina, which is why Dowd calls Neet the best kept secret in Charlotte.
“She has an in with these girls,” says Dowd. “Having been on the ground she has an understanding and knowledge that these other organizations don’t have.”
It’s that understanding that has helped shaped the services and mindset found at MYM. “Rescue is not a long term solution,” says Neet. “We had to really think about the programming piece rather than just rescuing and putting them in a house. They needed a place where they could get mentorship and resources.”
MYM serves as a drop-in center where girls ages 13 - 21 can get skill development, GED training, mentoring, counseling, court advocacy, crisis care, and transitional housing. Girls with parental conflict can receive family counseling to try and achieve reunification. With the Neet’s Sweets’ kitchen now on the premises in their new space, girls are able to work and gain skills, as well as learn about operating a business.
The MYM philosophy is to help transform young women from survivors to social entrepreneurs. Girls are encouraged to discover their passions and can be matched with professional mentors to help actualize their dream.
“Market Your Mind, Not Your Body is a great way to teach young ladies that they are intelligent,” says “D”, a survivor and 8th grader at Ranson Middle School. “As the ladies begin to share this trait, they [realize they] shouldn’t sell their bodies to men that don’t intervene in their lives as role models. This inspired me in a way I could never think of. Why should I put my body on the market when my ideas make so much more?”
“It’s not just about getting a job,” says Neet. “We have to help them find something they love and are passionate about otherwise we’ll lose them.”
Which is why Neet feels strongly about not referring to the girls she serves as victims, but rather, displaced entrepreneurs.
“It says to these girls, look, you have the skills and drive. Now here are the resources to redirect that into something positive,” says Dowd.
“They have to think here,” says Neet. “It’s not called Market Your Mind, Not Your Body because it’s cute. That’s what it is.”
“From leadership down, we hold girls accountable here,” she says. “Sometimes that makes or breaks our girls. Some may not be ready for that level of accountability and they go back and that’s ok. They know we’ll be here when they are ready.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for the MYM organization to get traction in the community. For five years Neet and the MYM team tried to collaborate with the court system and social workers in an effort to get girls referred to the program.
“It took a lot of work and fighting to get minors referred to us, because they are being sent to PRTF (psychiatric residential treatment facility) or detention centers,” says Neet. “Those have been the only two options for youth and we’re saying we want to be the third alternative.”
Just last year, a Mecklenburg County judge sent a 15 year old girl under a court order to live in the MYM group home.
“And I’m not licensed,” says Neet. “So for a judge to overrule that and still put a minor in our home says we’re getting somewhere. The judges have been more on our side.”
MYM also works with and receives referrals from The Relatives Youth Crisis Shelter, Safe Alliance, and Time Out Youth.
Neet has recently returned to school at Johnson C. Smith University where she is studying social work and business.
“Right now we’re striving to create an evidence based model,” says Neet. Currently only four in the country, she’s hoping to advance the growth and support for survivor-led programs.
Just this fall, the FBI conducted a 135-city investigation that resulted in the arrest of 150 traffickers and the rescue of 149 children. But as any trauma victim can attest, after a physical rescue, the soul and spirit must be rescued as well. Thanks to Neet and MYM, Charlotte souls in need of rescue have a program that will teach them how to do just that for themselves.
A formally abandoned church in NoDa that is now under new leadership, has donated a portion of their space to the MYM program and their kitchen to Neet’s Sweets.
Society Charlotte is calling for builders, remodelers, and general contractors willing to donate their time and talents to help with projects. A big first need is to outfit the entrance to create a more distinct and welcoming environment.
Other ways to help:
Volunteer as a professional mentor or tutor.
Become a Dream Partner with a monthly pledge.
Have a special occasion? Consider using Neet’s Sweets for your catering needs.
In kind donations of clothing, toiletries, food, and office supplies.
This is the ball that brings fairy godmothers and genies in a bottle to life.
Six-year-old Parker has always been wild about animals, spouting out random facts about various species and playing with his many stuffed animals. In 2014, when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system, his stuffed animals kept him company during long hours of doctor appointments and treatments.
So when the Make-A-Wish Foundation, along with help from sponsor Lending Tree, stepped in to make a wish come true for him, Parker knew without a doubt what he wanted to do – become a zookeeper.
On April 28, 2015, Parker arrived at the NC Zoo in a limo with his mom, dad and brother, where Zoo employees helped him dress the part of an official zookeeper, complete with a NC Zoo hat, a personalized t-shirt and a name badge. The family then spent the afternoon touring the zoo, receiving backstage access to the habitats and spending one-on-one time with the animals.
Although he got to meet giraffes, foxes, elephants, bears and even a giant bunny, Parker particularly loved holding and feeding the birds at the Aviary habitat and touching the scales of the snakes and lizards in the Sonora Desert exhibit. The mini-zookeeper also got to feed a tasty fish lunch to the seals, and watch one of his favorite characters, Spongebob Squarepants, in “The Great Jelly Rescue” at the Zoo’s 4-D Theater.
“One of the scariest parts of Parker’s treatments was watching his personality disappear a little bit,” said Parker’s mother.
But after a day of being a zookeeper, it was clear that Parker is back to his outgoing, excited, smiling self.
The Wish Granters
The Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted wishes for more than 254,000 children like Parker, who are battling life-threatening conditions, since they began in 1980. What started as a few volunteers getting together to make one boy’s dream of being a policeman come true, has now grown into a national foundation with chapters across the country.
Granting 14,000 wishes in the last year alone, they average about one wish every 38 minutes.
But their mission isn’t just about making nice experiences for children. They believe a wish experience can be a game changer for a child with a life-threatening medical condition - giving the children courage to comply with their medical treatments, offering parents a chance to feel optimistic and encouraging others to seek out opportunities to volunteer.
North Carolina Chapter Celebrates 30 Years of Wishes
The Make-A-Wish Central & Western North Carolina Chapter will celebrate 30 years of granting wishes at The Wish Ball, beginning at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, February 12, 2016 at the Westin Charlotte. The annual fundraising gala is the Chapter’s largest event of the year, celebrating the 260 wishes granted last year, as well as the 273 wishes to be granted in the upcoming year. Hosted by WCNC’s Larry Sprinkle, the evening will include a seated dinner, live and silent auctions, raffles, a wine pull, jewelry pull, musical entertainment and plenty of surprises for and from wish families.
Surprises like last year’s “Wish Reveal” to 16 year old, Austin.
The Wish Reveal
Wish Kid, Austin, had always been an active child. Whether it was hitting the golf course with his dad, kicking around a soccer ball with his older brother or refereeing a match for younger children. But as cystic fibrosis began to keep the Charlotte teen from being as mobile as he’d like, he was forced to start attending only half days at school and stop playing sports altogether.
One of the highlights to his time spent indoors though, was watching his beloved New England Patriots play football. So when he was asked for his wish, it was of no surprise that it was to watch his team play at the Super Bowl.
But since he made his wish in December, it seemed implausible that it could be granted in such a short time.
That was, until the Wish Ball on January 30, 2015, just two days before the Super Bowl.
At the event, Austin was called to the stage. Streamers flew through the air and the NFL theme music began to play, as he was told he and his family were going to Super Bowl XLIX.
After flying into Phoenix, the family was chauffeured to the game in style, where they cheered their team on to a win over the Seattle Seahawks. They also got to stay an extra three days and explore the American Southwest, visiting an abandoned mining town and playing arcade games together in the city.
Come witness more unforgettable surprise moments like the Wish Reveal and help celebrate our local chapter’s 30 years of service at this year’s Wish Ball.
Tickets to the 2016 Wish Ball are $250 each and can be purchased at www.ncwishball.org. Tables and sponsorship opportunities are also available.
The Women’s Impact Fund hosts the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Conference
We are not in the check writing business ladies.
Darla Moore, the keynote speaker at the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Conference, returned to this point more than once in her sharp and sassy talk on the opening night of the conference held at the Ballantyne Hotel in October.
The conference, hosted by WCGN member organization, Charlotte Women's Impact Fund, provided women leaders in philanthropy from across the nation with inspiration, education and practical tools to inform their philanthropic work of making high-impact, strategic investments in nonprofit organizations.
WCGN is the umbrella group for collective giving funds from across the country. Its members include 45 collective-giving grantmaking organizations in 23 states with a total of more than 10,000 women members. WCGN members have collectively granted over $70 million to nonprofits in their respective communities.
Moore, the former vice president of Rainwater, Inc., a private investment company, and founder and chair of both the Palmetto Institute, a nonprofit think tank aimed at bolstering per capita income in South Carolina, and the Charleston Parks Conservancy, has invested or donated approximately $130 million of her own money in projects benefiting her home state of South Carolina. Along with Condoleezza Rice, Moore was one of the first two women admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club.
Citing Mark Zuckerburg’s $100 million contribution to Newark Public Schools, which was criticized as a failure, Moore stressed the importance of seeing grants and contributions through, ensuring that objectives and metrics for success are established and met.
She continued her talk with witty and smart stories of pushing past boundaries in male dominated Wall Street, leading protests to spark change in South Carolina, and the dinner she and her husband had with Hugh McColl when he stated his intention of naming the University of South Carolina’s business school in her honor in exchange for a sizable contribution, which she ultimately gave.
The weekend continued with exuberant fellowship, workshops, and breakout sessions from such leaders as Nancy Brinkler, the founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run.
For more information on the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network, visit - wcgn-network.org
To get involved in the Charlotte Women’s Impact Fund, visit womensimpactfund.org
Local Community Issue most on your radar….
Cuts in art funding. Charlotte’s cultural institutions operate on very lean staffs and budgets. A flourishing art community is a necessity for building a thriving environment to attract new businesses creating job growth, to stimulate tourism, and to inspire our community. Two organizations dear to my heart exemplify this inspiration.
Charlotte Ballet’s Reach Program is a community outreach, need-based dance scholarship which affords children the opportunity to access quality dance training in their neighborhoods free of charge, promoting self-esteem, discipline, a strong work ethic and an appreciation for the arts.
The Mint Museum’s Grier Heights Community Arts Program is designed to support at-risk middle and high school students. The holistic program supports the students through community volunteers who teach lessons on health, nutrition, relationships, communication, and career opportunities while exposing the students to various forms of art.
Broader national/international issue most on your radar….
Prejudice, discrimination, and the inability of people to get along.
Best party/event you’ve been to in the last year….
Charlotte Ballet’s “Dancing with the Stars” Mark your calendar for Saturday, March 5th and be sure to vote for your favorite couple!
Recent splurge purchase you treated yourself to….
I just booked a creative pilgrimage to Morocco with several interior design friends this fall. I agree with Diana Vreeland’s motto, “The eye has to travel.” I always return inspired with creative juices flowing, which greatly helps my design aesthetic evolve.
Charlottean you’d like to see run for Mayor one day….
Jay Everette, Senior Vice President and Community Affairs Manager for Wells Fargo. His positive influence on every individual and organization he supports is extraordinary. He is always ready with a kind word and open ear. When you are in his company, you just want to be a better person.
Charlottean who should be given a reality show…
Cam Newton. Not only is he awe-inspiring to watch on the football field, but he has also made an incredible impact on our community through his foundation, which focuses on youth education, physical fitness, health, and community service. Whether he is dancing, playing Superman or giving back to the community, his enthusiastic spirit is contagious and would be fascinating to watch.
Best meal you’ve had in a while….
A delightful ladies’ lunch at Jardin at the Wynn Las Vegas…An architectural gem with stunning design, incredible food and the most amazing floral designs I have ever seen.
Advice you’d give your younger self…
Do your thing. Do it unapologetically. Don’t be discouraged by criticism. Pay no mind to fear of failure. It’s far more valuable than success. Take ownership, take chances and have fun. And no matter what, don’t ever stop doing your thing.
Harry Jones finds peace in his battle with pancreatic cancer
You may remember Harry Jones as the combative former county manager who was unceremoniously kicked out of his job two years ago by the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners. His quiet reaction to the event may have seemed uncharacteristic to some. “I was at peace. I felt good at where I was in my life,” he says. “I wasn’t fired. I was freed.”
But people close to him had begun to notice a change. In fact Jones had recently experienced a turning point in his life that put the end cap to his long public service career into a different perspective. In December of 2011, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. Three-quarters of people with the cancer die within the first year of diagnosis and only seven percent reach the five-year survival mark.
That’s because pancreatic cancer is hardly ever detected before it’s in an advanced stage. Due to the cancer’s stealth nature, a bad case of acid reflux was Jones’ only indication that something was amiss. “It started about six or seven months before my diagnosis,” he says. “I felt discomfort in my sternum. I noticed that whenever I ate, I had a little difficulty swallowing.” His doctor put him acid-blocking medications and Jones started drinking smoothies for lunch instead of burgers and fries.
Jones eventually noticed other changes in his gastrointestinal system. He would experience the urge to move his bowels, but when he got to the bathroom he would only expel gas.
“I liken pancreatic cancer to a virus in your computer,” Jones says. “You notice that computer is slowing down. Meanwhile the Trojan horse is working its way into your files. One day it zaps you.”
The problem is there are no early detection tools. “There’s no blood test the doctor could give me, nothing like a mammogram for breast cancer or the PSA for prostate cancer,” Jones says. “There’s no easy way to detect it.”
As time went on, Jones began to feel that something was terribly wrong and called his doctor. “I said ‘I want a test today and I don’t care if I have to mortgage the house to pay for it,’” he says. Imaging tests revealed he had a three-centimeter tumor (a little longer than an inch) on the tail of his pancreas, the small gland located deep in the abdomen that produces digestive enzymes and the hormones that regulate blood sugar.
Additional tests confirmed that it was inoperable stage IV cancer that had spread to his liver. Jones wasn’t expected to live for more than a few months. The diagnosis led him to Reza Nazemzadeh, MD, an oncologist with Carolinas Health Care’s Levine Cancer Institute, who started Jones on a grueling regimen of chemotherapy.
Letting go of fear
But even before drugs had a chance to target his tumor, Jones was beginning to experience a profound shift. He says the diagnosis sparked within him a deep spiritual transformation.
On Christmas Eve, as he was walking his dog and contemplating the challenging months ahead, Jones says, he found himself reciting a Bible verse he’d learned as a teenager, Mark 11:22.
“Have faith in God,” the scripture reads, “for verily I say unto you that whosoever shall say unto the mountains be thou removed and be thou cast into the sea and whosoever believes in his heart and shall not doubt shall have whatsoever he asks. And whatever things you ask for, when you pray believe that you receive them and they shall be yours.”
“As I walked, reciting those words repeatedly, I began to feel something different stirring inside of me. The stress and anxiety I had been feeling since receiving my diagnosis two days earlier disappeared. I felt my burden being lifted,” Jones recalled in his recently published book, How Cancer Cured My Soul, which chronicles his journey. “On that day, my death sentence was commuted to a life sentence. I stopped thinking about dying and began to focus on living.”
A few days later Jones started receiving a 48-hour chemotherapy infusion requiring the use of a mobile pump every two weeks. Luckily he never experienced the nausea typical of the treatment. But he couldn’t avoid the crushing tiredness the chemo brought on. ‘The second day is fatigue,” he says. “You just kind of hit the wall and you know you need to rest.”
Still Jones weathered the regimen relatively well and he was able to work while wearing the pump. The medications began to help, blasting back the cancer cells on his pancreas and liver.
By last May, his doctors revised their earlier treatment plan. The spots on his liver had cleared up and other tests confirmed that he had no cancer in his body. Jones was no longer considered to have metastatic disease and was able to have surgery to remove part of his pancreas and his spleen. He continues to receive chemotherapy but less frequently than before. “We’ll continue to monitor it to prevent a recurrence,” he says.
Taking a new path
Meanwhile Jones’ spiritual focus is even sharper. He is frequently asked to speak about his experience at prayer breakfasts and other events and he can often be found behind the pulpit of local churches. “I’m able to tell the spiritual side of my journey,” he says. “I feel more loving and giving, more joyful and peaceful.”
“My days are very different now,” Jones muses. “I look at the beauty of the world in a better way. I see things I used to not see because I was in too big a hurry. For years, I would walk downtown and never noticed the many water fountains that adorn the landscape. Now I take a seat and listen to the whirl of the water. It represents calm and peace for me. I see God’s creation in the mirror of the water.”
Jones seems to be closer than ever to his family and a widening circle of friends, many of who have sought him out for comfort and advice. “I’m in touch with people all over the country who I’ve never met in the flesh, referred to me by others,” he says. “They inspire me as much as I hope I inspire them.”
Jones hopes to reach many more through his book, a slim self-published paperback with a powerful message. “I hope it is a source of inspiration and hope, not just for people with cancer but those facing any kind of calamity, obstacle or burden in life,” he says. “I hope I can give them insight into how to overcome it.”
Jones’ battle has brought him into close to other pancreatic cancer patients, many of whom have passed away, such as Neil Cooksey, who served on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners until his death from the disease in 2012.
Jones also uses his voice to advocate for pancreatic cancer research and raise awareness of the disease and its risk factors. “Pancreatic cancer is on track to be the deadliest cancer,” he says. While many cancers have seen vast improvements in the rates of detection and treatment, pancreatic cancer lags far behind. “Overall survival rates have not changed appreciably in the last 40 years,” he says. “And pancreatic cancer gets only two percent of research dollars.”
The cancer gets less airplay because it lacks an army of survivors to push the agenda forward, Jones notes. “People know less about it because patients don’t live with it very long. There are no faces associated with the disease that you can put on posters or on TV to talk about it,” he says. “You need people like me and others who know of the dire need to help organizations like the Pancreatic Cancer Network raise funds for research to improve detection and treatment.”
In addition to speaking about how his faith has sustained him, Jones also delivers a powerful health message: to tune in to your own body and listen to what it is telling you. “It’s something I have to do everyday: remind people to ‘know your body,’” he says. “If I hadn’t known my body, if I hadn’t taken the initiative to say ‘Something is wrong and I want a test today,’ I’m not sure how things would have turned out.”
“One of the things I have had to come to grips with is understanding that we all have an unknown future,” Jones says. “We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. You can let cancer beat you or you can decide to beat it. Stuart Scott (the ESPN anchor who recently died of cancer) said, ‘You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.’ Even if I die from this, I will not be a beaten person.”
Join the Fight Against Pancreatic Cancer
Almost 50,000 Americans are expected to die from pancreatic cancer in 2015, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (Pancan.org). Unlike breast, colon, prostate and a few other cancers, which may be cured or at least managed like a chronic disease, a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is for most a death sentence. Only seven percent of people diagnosed with the disease will survive five years or longer.
“Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death,” says Mark Weber, a volunteer for the organization whose mother and father-in-law both died from the disease. “Within the next five years it’s expected to be the number two leading cause of death. The trend needs to stop. We have to do something.” This year the network launched PurpleStride (www.purplestride.org), a series of events across the country to raise awareness as well as funds to advance research to come up with better diagnostic tools and treatments.
In September, Panthers Coach Ron Rivera, whose brother, Mickey, died after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer in July, served as honorary starter for the PurpleStride Charlotte 5K timed run and walk. The event raised $260,000 for pancreatic cancer research, “tens of thousands more than we anticipated,” Rivera says. “We had a phenomenal turnout.”
But much more is needed. “We are beginning to learn more about the disease,” Rivera says. “There’s an increased awareness that it is survivable. It’s just a matter of early detection. We have to catch it early.”
Pancreatic Cancer Symptoms and Risk Factors
One reason pancreatic cancer is so hard to detect is that symptoms, when present, are often vague and mimic those of other disorders. These symptoms are frequently reported by people diagnosed with the cancer:
Ascites, the abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdominal cavity
Changes in stools, such as diarrhea or constipation
Digestive difficulties, including the loss of appetite, indigestion and nausea
Jaundice, yellowing of the skin and eyes
New onset diabetes in people over the age of 50
Pain in the abdomen and/or back
Significant unexplained weight loss
Chronic and hereditary pancreatitis
Family history: 2-3 times increased risk if a first-degree relative is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer
Long-standing (over 5 years) diabetes
Smoking: associated with 20-30% of all pancreatic cancer cases.
Having the symptoms or risk factors does not mean you have or will get cancer. Talk to your doctor about any concerns.