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  • Cancer doesn’t stand a chance against this group

    Jean’s a university professor who has beat cancer four different times. Gila was a single mother of two with no one to turn to when she got – and eventually beat – her cancer diagnosis. Aleesia, Carole, Ebony and Liz have similar tales of triumph.

    They’re just a few of the Tucson Cancer Conquerors, a group that meets regularly at Pima County’s Brandi Fenton Memorial Park for exercise, edibles, strength and support.

    It’s where the newly diagnosed can harvest the hope of long-time survivors, drawing courage and strength from their triumph over grim diagnoses, hair loss, depression and much more.
    Jean Thomas

    The Conquerors

    Jean Thomas was 34, married with kids age 7 and 5, when she received her first cancer diagnosis. Nearly 30 years later came the diagnosis of a supposedly terminal breast cancer. 

    “One of the things that got me through it was my oncologist,” Jean recalled. No matter how bad she looked or felt, he would cheerily wish her a “good day at work,” teaching voice at Iowa State University. 

    Five years after the breast cancer came news of ovarian and uterine cancer. Jean beat them all.

    She lost things along the way, such as her ability to sing. But that forced her to draw on her family’s history in conservation for the benefit of her fellow cancer survivors.

    “Now I lead interpretive hikes, so it feels kind of full circle,” said Jean, 79, who’s been in Tucson for 10 years now. “It’s really a wonderful, joyful new life.”

    Gila Ben-Jamin jokes that Thomas helped her “come out of the closet” as a cancer survivor when the two met at a community function in Tucson. Gila was a single mother of two who had lost her own mother to cancer. She wasn’t about to let her children grow up without their mom.

    “It was 1973, I was 30 years and I had no help, no support, nothing,” remembered the feisty septuagenarian who roars into Cancer Conquerors gatherings on her motorcycle. In 1973, cancer was a dirty word, she said. Not wanting to make friends or family uncomfortable, she told no one of her radical mastectomy, her struggle to feed her kids.

    Years later, the Boston native made a career as a respiratory therapist in northern California before finally settling in Tucson. It was Liz AlmliJean who told her about Tucson Cancer Conquerors and encouraged her to get involved with the group, despite the fact that she is now 47 years past her diagnosis.

    Today, Gila’s wisdom and wisecracks serve as inspiration to newly diagnosed TCC members as well as friends like Thomas.

    “I’m the longest survivor here,” she says, proudly. “I turned my husband in for a motorcycle and never looked back.”

    County offers a home

    Liz Almli is a physician and the president of the group. As a busy anesthesiologist involved in the care of cancer patients, she never imagined herself facing the challenges of a breast cancer diagnosis. A Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer, Liz takes a break from leading a Get Fit class on the Brandi Fenton field for 15-20 cancer survivors to chat about the group. 

    Exercise classes are just one of TCC’s many offerings. Modified classes where survivors are seated cater to those who may still be recovering from surgery or other issues. TCC also maintains an organic garden with frequent visits by Ken Harvey, executive chef at Ventana Canyon who delights in creating healthy dishes for the group. 

    Birthday dinners, coffee cafes, even a book club are among the slate of activities that fill the group’s calendar. And most all of those activities take place at the old ranch house at Brandi Fenton Memorial Park, one of the first county parks built as a public/private partnership. The facility serves as a resource center, with book-lined shelves and cozy chairs members can use when they visit and swap stories. The County also supplies the hand weights, exercise balls and other equipment for the group.

    “Public/Private partnerships enable Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation to serve the community in more creative and meaningful ways,” says Chris Cawein, director.  

    The Pima County Board of Supervisors approved the partnership with TCC five years ago, recalled former District 4 Supervisor Ray Carroll. The group had a lot of community support, particularly since cancer touches the lives of so many people. The partnership also fit with the County’s history of working with community groups with missions that range from helping homeless pet owners to rescuing cacti. 

    Members are beyond grateful, said Liz.
    “The County has given us a home!” she said. “We are an all-volunteer self-supporting organization. The resource center has really given people a gathering spot to stay, or to chat.”

    The lasting legacy of the group is that members do, in fact, stay. 

    “Very few people come and disappear,” Liz said. “They mentor younger members or ones who are newly diagnosed. We’re trying to empower people to get healthy and to stay healthy.”

    One of those members who hung around is Carole Wymer. A speech/language pathologist, she learned about the group while walking through Brandi Fenton Park shortly after she was diagnosed.

    “I’d always been pretty active and didn’t want a traditional support group,” Carol recalled. TCC gave her the support she needed in her battle with breast cancer but also allowed her to keep exercising, eating healthy and “getting back to some sense of normalcy.” Eight years later, she’s still an active member of the group, leading fitness classes and lending support where needed.

    Newbies draw strength

    Ebony DanielsAleesia Hughes was on the adventure of a lifetime when her boyfriend (now husband) took her skydiving. But after landing on the ground disoriented, Aleesia said doctors discovered a huge mass on her brain: a grade four glioblastoma.
    “It’s what John McCain had,” Aleesia said. Only 37 at the time, Aleesia was given six months to live.

    Five years later, the regular scans she gets are still clean. And her priority, aside from her husband and two boys, is drawing strength from her fellow Cancer Conquerors.

    “I’m not going to let it stop me.”

    Ebony Daniels is another young survivor. She waited almost a year to get help from the Veterans Administration after her breast cancer diagnosis. Just 36 with two young children, the Air Force veteran stoically pushed away friends and family who wanted to help.

    Then came the day when she could no longer do those daily tasks for herself.

    “Sometimes bad things happen to you for a reason,” said Ebony, a financial analyst who wrote a book on her journey. “Cancer is a horrible thing, in the beginning, but you decide how it ends. The best thing I did was reach out and find this community.”
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