Friday, December 14, 2007

Cancer survivors drive away as winners


Those scattered throughout the hall at the Carpinteria Lions Club last night were fighters. People who battled the odds, fought tooth and nail, stared down death and refused to surrender. Cancer survivors.
And the stories they told, heart-wrenching stories about their fight to survive, did more than inspire others. It gave them the keys to a car.
In its third year, the annual essay contest put on by Exclusive German Auto Care in Carpinteria awarded the author of the top essay from this year as well as the two runner-ups from last year each with a used BMW spiffed up by the auto shop.

Brooke Rye wiped tears from her eyes as she came forward to accept the top prize for this year’s contest. Diagnosed with fourth-stage breast cancer, including lung, lymph, liver and bone cancer, as well as a cancerous brain tumor in January, the Carpinteria resident was told by the first doctor she saw that she had about two months to live.
“I went out to my car, cried hysterically and then remembered my son,” she wrote in her essay.
When her son was born, doctors told Rye and her husband that he had less than a month to live. Against all medical odds, he lived to be seven and a half.
“So I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘Snap out of it — you are not going anywhere — you have more to give — find the tools to fight this cancer and get on with life,’” she wrote.
Nearly a year later, Rye strode forward confidently. As she took the keys to her car, she said she plans to sell her old car and donate the money to the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit organization that assists children with cancer.
“If those of us out here with cancer think we have a tough battle,” she said, “just think of little 3- and 4-year-olds.”
As she walked outside to look at her car, replete with a big bow, Rye said she had no idea it was coming, describing how she had just come from her daughter’s soccer practice and was on her way home to make dinner for her family.
“I was coaching soccer and I look like the dickens,” she said.
Scott Chenoweth and Nicole Herbert both felt the same shock and surprise, told prior to the event that they would simply be presented with books containing last year’s essays.
And while Elisa Christensen, owner of the auto shop, had put those books together, she had also asked community members, friends and family for donations to afford three cars, rather than one.
“There are two special essay writers from last year that we couldn’t stop thinking about,” she said before reading both essays by Chenoweth and Herbert and bringing them forward.
Last year, Chenoweth, then 18, had just graduated from high school and found out he had been admitted to the local fire academy.
“I was looking forward to starting my career and was so excited to be able to help people in need,” he wrote. “In July of this year, all of this changed. I was diagnosed with leukemia and was absolutely devastated.”
Filled with mixed emotions during his first days in the hospital, Chenoweth saw the friends and family that packed the halls and felt something change inside him.
“I realized very quickly what is truly important in life,” he wrote. “This loving support that I received … has allowed me to take a step back and realize how precious life really is.”
Now 19, he is planning to take EMT courses and recover from chemotherapy before returning to the fire academy. Admittedly shocked when Christensen handed over the keys to his first car, he said his experience has given him a new outlook on life.
Herbert was 25 when she got the news. A rare form of leukemia/lymphoma had attacked her body. Despite a whirlwind of doctor visits, chemotherapy treatments and hospital stays, she said her goal throughout remained the same.
“I feel like there are too many things that I have to do in my life,” she wrote. “Too many plans to follow through on, too many countries to visit, friends to make, people to help. I have so much to accomplish.
“I have no doubt that I will not only be a cancer survivor, but also a cancer fighter.”
Planning to pursue a nursing degree, inspired by so much time around nurses, Herbert is also getting married next month to her fiancé, Loren Dion.
“We were saving for a car,” she said. “Now we don’t have to. We can go on honeymoon.”
Christensen said her inspiration for the essay contest came years ago, when she was 12 years old and went with her family to a toy store to find a gift for her young cousin. Another family in the store with a son about the same age as her cousin helped them pick out a toy car. After seeing how much the boy loved the car, Christensen’s parents secretly paid the cashier for the toy and hid, watching tears flow down the faces of the boy’s parents as the cashier handed them the gift.
“Out of all the Christmases I can remember from my childhood,” Christensen said, “that’s the one I remember the most.”

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