Published: Dec 15, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Dec 15, 2012 08:31 PM
Each December the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program honors people who have battled, who are living with or who are making a difference in the lives of those with cancer.
On Wednesday evening, the program held its 22nd annual Tree of Hope Lighting Ceremony in the Seese-Thornton Garden of Tranquility.
The program provides services, like support groups and therapy, which may not otherwise be available to cancer patients and their families.
In the lighting ceremony, the holly tree and its lights symbolize people and the hope that humanity’s fight with cancer may soon be won.
As each light honors a person touched by cancer in one way or another, the uppermost light represents the “Light of Hope,” an individual who has somehow helped others cope with the disease.
This year’s “Light of Hope” is retired Durham firefighter Cindy Atkins.
About 200 people and several fire trucks were on site as Atkins received the honor.
She served as a firefighter for 11 years before being diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer and having to retire.
Some firefighters in attendance covered her shifts when Atkins was first going through treatment.
Battalion Chief Tamala Wilson worked occasionally with Atkins and said firefighters have a “special camaraderie.”
“She’s a rare breed of person,” Wilson said. “She’s missed in the fire service but she’s making a great impact at Duke, and we’re proud of her.”
Atkins works as a self-image volunteer with the program, helping patients who are losing their hair find head coverings such as wigs and hats.
She helps at least twice a week and says it gives her purpose.
“I got a blond wig for no charge and they called me ‘Goldie,’” Atkins said. “Now I’m a patient and a volunteer because it’s done so much for me.”
“I’m going through this myself,” she continued. “But here at the center I feel like I’m going somewhere and not thinking about me. I focus on them.”
Atkins’ first experience with Phillip Shoe, the program volunteer coordinator with whom she has worked with for years, helped bring her in.
Shoe met Atkins and her husband, Bill, for the first time in the center’s self-image room as she hesitantly looked at the blond wig.
“I told her if you’re going to go through this than have fun,” Shoe said. “She put it on and her face lit up. She looked good in her wig.”
Shoe said that Atkins is a “glass flows over” kind of person who puts patients, especially new ones, at ease.
“She often tells patients if they laugh or cry she’ll do it with them,” he said.
Only about 1 in 20 of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer are at Stage 4, meaning the cancer has already metastasized, or spread, according to the American Cancer Society. Stage 4 breast cancer can be treated, but it is considered incurable. Depending on the type of tumor, patients may live active lives for many years.
Atkins, credits her faith for resilience and said people often tell her she looks good for stage 4.
“I tell them it’s attitude,” she said. “I believe something good comes from something bad.”
“You can let the situation consume you or go forward.”