By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Annual event celebrates bravery, hope for cancer survivors
pink Helmet
Michael Iltis accepts the Turlock Firefighters 3rd Annual Pink Helmet Award on behalf of his late wife, Sonja Iltis, alongside family members Britta VanVliet, Bryan VanVliet, Mallory Bischoff, Jeff Bischoff and Jack Bischoff (being held by his dad). - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

Hundreds of cancer survivors, friends and family united under one roof Tuesday evening at the 19th annual Emanuel Cancer Center’s Women’s Cancer Awareness Night to celebrate courage and say “yes” to beating cancer.

Emanuel Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Sue Micheletti was the event’s emcee for the third year, and as a four-year cancer survivor, the event continues to move her every time she takes the stage.

“It’s very symbolic to represent the hospital, but also being a cancer survivor this is very meaningful to me,” said Micheletti. “I’m a four-year survivor now, but there are a lot of people here who have survived cancer a lot longer than I have but we’re all kind of a big family at this event and it’s very touching.”

Survivors were celebrated all evening at the event, with a procession of those who have defeated cancer kicking off the night. Terrie King of Turlock was first diagnosed with cancer in 1989, and battled the disease numerous times before eventually undergoing a lung removal in 2012. Though her fight was a tough one, King has allowed her journey to affect her life in a positive way.

“It’s been life-changing, but such a wonderful change in my life as far as looking at life differently, counting your blessings every day and being so thankful,” said King. “We can go through really dark times in our lives, but through those times we can find joy.”

Meeting other cancer survivors, as well as those currently battling the disease, is priceless, said King.

“This event means so much to me because a lot of women are out there finding out their diagnosis today and only feeling like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen?’ They need to know that there is hope on treatment – that you can live and survive,” King said.

The event welcomed cancer survivor Lori Allen of TLC’s "Say Yes to the Dress" fame, who shared with the audience her own personal fight with breast cancer, which began at 7:05 a.m. on April 13, 2012. Allen received her breast cancer diagnosis over the phone while driving her husband to the hospital, who was suffering from cancer as well. The results came following a mammogram that Allen almost skipped.

“I just can’t stress enough the importance of mammograms,” said Allen, whose decision to go to the doctor and get checked saved her life. “I think in the deepest part of my mind I was always afraid – and I think all of us women out there are – I think we don’t go because we’re afraid and we cannot be afraid. We have to stand up to cancer.”

After winning her fight against cancer, Allen has made it her mission to share her story with other survivors. Her story has taken her all over the country to speak to women battling cancer, and while in Turlock she was able to visit the Emanuel Cancer Center.

“I was so impressed at the caring and compassionate nature of all the people there, and they were so excited to show me the venue and the gorgeous building,” said Allen. “It means a lot for me tonight to share my story because I have gone all over the country and Canada – I’ve been everywhere sharing my story – because I feel like, as survivors, that’s how we give back.”

The Turlock Firefighters Local #2434 presented the 4th Annual Pink Helmet Award posthumously to Sonja Iltis, who was a founding committee member of the Women’s Cancer Awareness Night Out, serving from 1996-2016. The award is given each year to someone who represents the characteristics of a firefighter: compassion, bravery, honesty, commitment and courage.

 Iltis was first diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 24, then diagnosed with another type of breast cancer at age 38. In 2010, Iltis was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and experienced five reoccurrences over the past four years before ultimately losing her battle on Aug. 1, 2016.

Iltis served as the volunteer Hospitality Team Leader at Emanuel Cancer Center and also volunteered for Off Center Thrift & Gift and Jessica’s House. Iltis’ husband, Michael, her daughters Britta VanVliet and Mallory Bischoff and sons-in-law Bryan VanVliet and Jeff Bischoff were on hand to accept the Pink Helmet Award.

“One of my favorite moments was toward the end of Sonja’s life,” said Michael Iltis. “I was at the head of the hospital bed in her bedroom at home and the girls were rubbing her feet, her legs, just providing comfort to her. Several people had come and said, 'Please take this message to so-and-so when you get to heaven.’ Those were sacred moments that I’ll never forget, just incredible moments. But, she had her eyes closed and she said, ‘I’ve got so much to do up there,’ and still, with her eyes closed, said, ‘At least I’ll be able to travel at the speed of light.’”