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Island of Hope: Fighting cancer one step at a time

by jmaloni
Fri, May 30th 2014 08:40 pm
Cancer survivors Pat Conta, left, and Mary Dunbar-Daluisio.
Cancer survivors Pat Conta, left, and Mary Dunbar-Daluisio.

Story and photos by Alice E. Gerard

Cancer is the enemy that attacks indiscriminately, said Mary Dunbar-Daluisio, 59, former co-chair of Grand Island's Relay For Life. "Cancer doesn't care how old you are. Cancer doesn't care how young you are. It doesn't care what gender you are. Cancer affects so many people because it doesn't just affect the person with cancer. It affects that person's family and friends."

Even after cancer seems to be defeated, there is always a fear that it will attack again. Pat Conta, 72, whose uterine cancer is now in remission, said, "Cancer never leaves your mind. There is always that foreboding feeling that it's going to knock at your door again."

Although many have won their battles with cancer, the disease is still a deadly foe. Conta talked about her best friend, Debra Remson, who died in November 2013. Remson, a violin teacher at Grand Island High School, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. "She always had a smile. She was there to help people. She was my best friend ever. She got me to the right doctors, and she kept me going through treatment. She was amazing."

Conta described Remson's journey. She was a popular teacher who directed concerts, judged students participating in statewide competitions, and offered private lessons. She traveled to Jerusalem, which affirmed her faith. Last August, she made her Bat Mitzvah, said Conta.

"She didn't sit at home to dwell on her own problems," Conta said of Remson. But, by 2013, Remson had problems walking. Her medication had stopped working. Cancer had taken over her body, invading her bones, liver and brain. In November, Remson suffered a stroke and died soon afterward at the age of 60.

Dunbar-Daluisio said that her family, too, had suffered from cancer's grip. Her older sister, Margaret Dunbar-Berdine, died at 47 of breast cancer in 1992. "I felt like I was honoring her by doing something so meaningful," Dunbar-Daluisio said of her participating in Relay For Life. In 2005, however, cancer again became an ominous presence in her life when she was diagnosed with carcinoid tumor, a type of cancer that typically affects the gastrointestinal system and tends to be slow growing. "My first surgery was in the end of March in 2004. They removed my primary site and my small intestine. They wanted to go back in seven weeks later, but I told them that they couldn't have me until the Monday after Relay. I wasn't available! So on June 13, I had a liver resection because the cancer had metastasized to my liver."

"My cancer will never be in remission," Dunbar-Daluisio said. "It's very maintainable. I go to Roswell (Park Cancer Institute) and get a shot every four weeks. Also I'm on oral chemo. I will live with it (the cancer) for the rest of my life."

Relay For Life is an international event that celebrates cancer survivors. It is held in communities in 19 nations. In each location holding a Relay For Life event, the focus is on community and support.

Dunbar-Daluisio said that Relay For Life came to Grand Island in 2003. Dunbar-Daluisio, who works as a warranty administrator for all three of Fuccillo's facilities, said, "Fuccillo was asked to be a corporate sponsor, and I was asked to sit in on the meeting." She was asked to be in charge of entertainment after she located a DJ for the event.

Dunbar-Daluisio became co-chair of the event a year later, after the two original co-chairs stepped down. She stayed in that position until 2012.

Dunbar-Daluisio said that she had many experiences as co-chair of Relay For Life. "One year, we had tornado-type winds. We always had to have an evacuation plan. Everyone went into the gym. I stayed out in the trailer that we used as a bank and Peter McMahon (the other co-chair) went with everyone else. When I went inside, I saw Teddy's Islettes performing. All they did was to move it inside, and Relay kept going."

Relay For Life has been about bringing a community together to celebrate survivors and to raise money in the American Cancer Society's fight against cancer. According to Dunbar-Daluisio, "Grand Island has raised over a million dollars in 10 years."

Fundraising for Relay For Life has been about having fun while raising funds. Dunbar-Daluisio said that Gary Roesch and his team got a flock of pink flamingos and painted them purple. People could pay $20 to have the flock land on someone's lawn. The team came at night and, when the recipient woke up, the flock was decorating the lawn. Among the recipients of the flock were Dunbar-Daluisio's cousin and The Rev. Paul Nogaro of St. Stephen R.C. Church. The flock was sent to him as a birthday present. Dunbar-Daluisio's cousin was confused by the flock. "He thought that they were geese. His wife laughed when she saw the purple flamingos," Dunbar-Daluisio said.

As co-chair, Dunbar-Daluisio said that she always tried to add to the fun by dressing in a way that would be appropriate for the year's theme. One year, the theme was "heroes of hope." She dressed in a nurse's uniform with her late mother's nametag. "My mom was a nurse and she was always my hero," she said. "My daughter Erin Dunbar threw her arms around me and told me she was proud of me, and she cried until her stomach shook."

Dunbar-Daluisio talked about the work that the American Cancer Society does to help cancer patients. Patients are given transportation to their doctor's appointment. They can get wigs at Mary's Wig Room, and they can participate in a Look Good, Feel Good program.

Conta's story illustrates the need for the support offered by the American Cancer Society. She began her cancer journey alone. In June of 2004, she suspected that something was wrong, but she didn't do anything about it because her time was consumed by taking care of her husband, Robert, 75, who is disabled as a result of back surgery. "Bob tried to convince me to go to the doctor right away." By October, Conta, the mother of five (two of whom are deceased), grandmother of nine, and great-grandmother of three, went to the doctor and underwent a number of procedures. The doctor told her that she might need surgery. "The next day, I received a phone call. I was told, 'You have stage three cancer.' She was given the name of the surgeon and the date of the surgery. "The tears came. I never met with the surgeon until after the surgery."

Conta suffered complications from surgery, resulting in damage to the ureter, the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder. She went through radiation, which she described as "embarrassing." Residents and medical students watched while "rods were put everywhere." "It was heart wrenching."

"Debbie got me through that," Conta said of her friend, who shared tea, lunches, dinners and conversations with her.

Conta's cancer is now a thing of the past. She spends much of her time taking care of her husband and her daughter, Mary Lynn, who had suffered complications from surgery.

Conta said that cancer has been the enemy that has taken away precious family members. Her mother's sister Rose died of breast cancer in the late 1950s. She lost two uncles, Harold and H. Buswell Roberts, and an aunt to cancer.

Conta said that Relay For Life "brings together people who have cancer. It pulls the community together. They are outstanding people. I like having it in Veterans Park. It's a great use of town property. The Relay is an absolute must and it should go on indefinitely."

Dunbar-Daluisio encouraged everyone to come to tomorrow's event, to be held from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Veterans Park. "If you want to see a community with compassion, come to Relay. It just might change your life. We are as unique as we are wonderful."

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