January 27, 2014

Giving change for change

Roan students have raised more than $13,000 in seven years for cancer research

By Christopher Smith

— “Every prayer had been answered” in Beth Evans’ life, she said.

She was married to a “wonderful guy” named Matt, helped her husband start Rock Bridge Community Church in Dalton, and had just adopted two sons from Ethiopia.

Then everything seemed to come to a halt when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood that threatened her life for the better part of a year.

“There were times I felt like I just couldn’t handle it anymore,” Evans said.

That was 2011. Now Evans is happy and healthy, she said. She spoke to hundreds of students at Roan Elementary School on Monday morning about her recovery, cancer research and the importance of giving. School staff and students used their morning gathering to kick off their eighth annual Pennies for Patients event where students are encouraged to bring donations for cancer research.

During the course of seven years, the school has raised $13,833.76, school officials said. The money goes to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a national volunteer organization focused on raising funds for research.

The students in the grade that raises the most money this year will receive prizes ranging from ice cream to a party, but 11-year-old Amy Lozada said she’s just happy to give.

“I just really like giving to the people who are sick,” she said. “I just feel good giving.”

Eight-year-old Frija Ramando, who gave a few nickels and a dime, agrees.

“It’s just help,” she said. “That’s what money is for. For helping someone else.”

Evans said “even a little bit does really help research.” She knows that firsthand, having received doses of genetically altered T cells, an experimental treatment some scientists believe will ultimately replace chemotherapy.

Evans’ T cells, which play a pivotal role in her immune system, were retooled to focus exclusively on attacking the Epstein–Barr virus, a “second cancer” Evans said she got during a bone marrow transplant to treat the first cancer. When the virus became metastatic, attacking Evans’ blood stream, she felt like “it was just getting too hard,” she said.

“I wasn’t able to swallow or eat for several weeks,” she said. “I was down to about 98 pounds at one point. I almost died several times. I had to undergo rounds and rounds of the T cells.”

Her two adoptive sons — Abreham and Eyasu — barely saw Evans during her time at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

“The hardest day was when they brought my boys up there to visit and within 24 hours they had to send them back home and put me back in the hospital,” she said. “I had not seen them in almost an entire year and they were taken away again. It was very heartbreaking.”

But her redesigned T cells, along with a feeding tube to sustain her through the treatment, paid off. All “through God,” Evans said. The cancer, which she monitors, shows no signs of returning, she added.

“They cured it,” she said. “I’m alive because of research. I just know God was with me. I’m so thankful. He saw every tear I cried. He was there with me through all of it.”

Julio Sanchez, 9, said he felt “both happy and sad for her (Evans).”

“I’m glad she’s OK,” he said. “I think I would be very sad if I thought I might die. I wouldn’t want to die because of cancer.”

Evans said her Christian faith stayed strong because she read the Bible most days. That didn’t mean it was “an easy road,” she clarified.

“It was a daily battle with lots of ups and downs,” she said. “It’s difficult. It’s really hard. But, I don’t know, I just started focusing on what I could control and that was my attitude. I tried to stay positive, which is hard when you don’t feel good. But God worked through the doctors and I’m better. I believe that.”