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Cancer survivors celebrate hope at annual event
cancer night outpic1
Local cancer survivors participate in the annual Survivor's Procession Tuesday evening during the 20th anniversary of Women's Cancer Awareness Night Out, hosted by Emanuel Medical Center. - photo by CANDY PADILLA/The Journal

When Turlock resident Clora McCray’s daughter was diagnosed with childhood leukemia as an infant, the three years of radiation appointments, doctor’s office visits and illness that followed were full of heartbreak. Soon, however, there was joy, when it was found that Marjorie McCray was cancer-free.


Decades later, in 2008, tragedy struck the McCrays once more when Clora was diagnosed with breast cancer. Again, the family was in and out of the hospital, affected by a disease that countless individuals suffer from every year, yet has no cure.


Clora looked to her daughter as an inspiration to fight her battle against cancer, she said.


“I said, ‘If she can do it, I can,’” said Clora. “We support each other.”


Today, Marjorie is 34 years old, and Clora has been cancer-free since the end of 2008, when her illness forced her to undergo a mastectomy. On Tuesday evening the pair gathered with other cancer survivors at the 20th annual Emanuel Cancer Center’s Women’s Cancer Awareness Night Out to celebrate their courageous fights, whether still ongoing or already won, against cancer.


The pair has attended the Women’s Cancer Awareness Night Out every year since 2013, said Clora.


“It’s uplifting, and things are only getting better,” she said. “We’re fighting for a cure and I know it’s coming. For those who are just starting out in their fight, I try and encourage them, tell them my story and motivate them to not give up and to keep fighting.”


Emanuel Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Sue Micheletti is approaching her fifth anniversary as a cancer survivor, and Tuesday’s event marked her fourth Night Out event since becoming CEO in 2014. The event not only serves as a call-to-action for women to receive proper health screenings to catch the disease in its early stages, she said, but also as a gathering place for cancer survivors to meet with others who have been through similar experiences.


“This event has allowed me to reach out to other people who are either in the same place I’m at or who might be struggling with a current or recent diagnosis,” said Micheletti. “This lets us stand up and say, ‘You’re going to be okay.’”


Survivors were celebrated all evening at the event, with a procession of those who have defeated cancer kicking off the night. MaryAnne Pimentel of Turlock was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42 after receiving a spur-of-the-moment mammogram from her doctor, she said.


“At age 42, I wasn’t thinking about cancer at all since it wasn’t in my family,” said Pimentel, now 67 years old and cancer-free.


After two years of continuous radiation treatments and oral chemotherapy, Pimentel was declared free of cancer, but she warns others not to make the same mistake she nearly did by ignoring her health.


“It’s very important to go get checked out, and at a young age, too,” she said. “This event means a lot to me because you can meet survivors, and that’s the main thing – people are surviving this. Do the treatments, because you’re going to survive.”


While Micheletti enjoys seeing and catching up with fellow survivors at the event every year, there are somber moments as well that remind her not everyone is lucky enough to hear the words, “Congratulations, you’re cancer-free.”


“You see the same people year after year, and sometimes you don’t see the same people,” she said. “You know not everyone’s blessed enough to be here this year, and that’s a sobering reminder of how fortunate we are to be here and be a part of this.”


Taking over for Micheletti as the evening’s master of ceremonies this year was Dr. Mikhail “Doctor Mike” Varshavski, the doctor who rose to fame on the internet and was voted “People” magazine’s “Sexiest Doctor Alive.”


Prior to the event, Varshavski was able to tour the Emanuel Cancer Center, and was in awe of the access patients have to state-of-the-art cancer-fighting treatments right here in Turlock.


“I’m really blown away by the ability of Emanuel Cancer Center partnering with Stanford to bring a lot of the health care access to patients locally here in Turlock,” he said. “I think that when patients have access and they’re given that information, that power to make those decisions, that’s when good things happen for their health.”


Varshavski was honored to be a part of the event’s 20th anniversary, he added, and hoped to bring some of the humor he is known for on YouTube to the night’s ceremonies.


“The whole purpose of the event is to raise awareness and bring power back to the women that are coming to this event, and men as well, because they help in making decisions for their wives, their daughters and their family members,” said Varshavski. “To bring me into an event like this and bring some humor, I think that’s a huge positive for this because when you have humor in a lesson, that’s when a lesson is truly learned.”

Caly Bevier, a cancer survivor and “America’s Got Talent” finalist, performed her cover of the song “Fight Song,” and the night also honored a local hero through the 5th Annual Pink Helmet Award, presented by the Turlock Firefighters Local #2434.

The award was established five years ago in order to honor courageous cancer survivors, advocates and caregivers who represent the characteristics of a firefighter: compassion, bravery, honesty, commitment and courage.

“It’s never an easy decision, because all our brave, beautiful cancer survivors are worthy of this award,” said Captain Chad Hackett.

This year, NICU nurse and “quintessential caregiver” Brenda Goates was given the honor, who was nominated by her twin daughters, Tiffany and Christina.

Goates has worked as a NICU nurse for over 15 years, and in addition to her career caring for infants who face life-threatening conditions, she has also cared for her niece who was born with Spina Bifida and is now 34 years old.

In 2006, Goates’ husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and his battle against cancer ended in 2012. One year later, Goates’ own fight for her life began when she was diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer, resulting in chemotherapy, radiation and multiple surgeries, including a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

“Throughout this journey, she never asked, ‘Why me?’” said Hackett. “She humbly accepted the battle that God had placed in front of her.”

Today, Goates has been in remission for nearly two years, and her story is symbolic of the words Micheletti’s oncologist said to her at the beginning of her own cancer battle.

“He said, ‘This is a tunnel, and right now, it’s a very dark tunnel and you can’t see the end of it, but when you come out on the other end, you’ll be able to help people.’”