Doug Odom learned years ago that cancer is a heartless disease that doesn’t discriminate between those who take good care of themselves and those who do not. If that were the case, he figures that it certainly wouldn’t have claimed his mother, a woman who had always maintained a healthy lifestyle. Her death in 1996 left her family stunned and asking why.
“It was a disease we never thought she would get,” said Odom, audit and inspection manager for TDCJ’s Risk Management Department in Huntsville. “She lived a clean life. She didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. Why did she get cancer?”
Over the past four years, a number of Odom’s questions about cancer have been answered through his participation in the Walker County Relay For Life, a fundraising event that benefits the American Cancer Society. This year, he served as chairman of the event that brings cancer survivors, patients and supporters together to raise funds for cancer research and to heighten public awareness of the disease. Approximately 3.5 million people, including 500,000 cancer survivors and 250,000 volunteers, take part in Relay For Life events held in approximately 4,800 communities throughout the nation each year. In 2005, related events raised more than $351 million nationwide.
Relay For Life is a team event where members take turns walking a designated course from dusk to dawn. More than 50 teams, including a number made up of TDCJ employees from various facilities and departments, participated in this year’s event held in May at Huntsville High School’s running track. It began with cancer survivors walking the first lap around the track, and was later followed by an emotional candle lighting ceremony in memory of those lost to the disease.
“The reason it’s structured as an overnight event is that there’s nothing darker in a person’s life than being told that they have cancer,” Odom said. “The lights go out for that person, and that’s why we start the relay after dark. The journey to the light is the whole relay event. The next morning there is a new light to show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that they can beat this disease.”
Among the cancer survivors participating were TDCJ employees Kathy Cleere, Sheryl Conover and Shannon Ware. Each attributes her survival of breast cancer to treatment advancements achieved through research.
“One of these days there’s not going to be a need for these events because cancer is going to be eradicated,” said Cleere, who has survived two occurrences of breast cancer. “I truly believe that.”
Today, however, cancer continues to kill indiscriminately. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 1.4 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the United States in 2007, including 91,000 in Texas, and that about 559,650 Americans will die of the disease this year alone. It is the second most common cause of death in the nation, exceeded only by heart disease.
In March, cancer claimed the life of retired TDCJ administrator Susan Cranford, who fought valiantly against the disease for years. A week after her untimely passing, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice remembered her life with a moment of silence during its regular meeting in Austin. In May, Chairman Christina Melton Crain presented her family with a resolution of commemoration in recognition of her service to the agency and state.
“As a mentor, she motivated the future leadership of TDCJ to achieve excellence and to realize their potential as executives and managers,” Crain said. “Her gallant and indomitable spirit remains an inspiration to thousands of women throughout the nation.”
Indeed, Cleere said Cranford’s courageous struggle against cancer made her proud.
“She was a warrior,” Cleere said about Cranford, a former senior warden who served as director of the Community Justice Assistance Division and headed the Private Facilities Division prior to her retirement in 2002. “She battled to the end. People like Susan are an inspiration to me. Some people just never give up. They keep fighting to the very end.”
Odom’s mother fought cancer for seven years. His co-worker, Sharon Goolsby, died from the disease in April. He says he participates in Relay For Life events not only for them, but also for all of those who will in some way be affected by cancer during their lifetimes.
“For me, it’s personal satisfaction,” Odom said. “I don’t want to see anyone go through what I went through and what my family went through with cancer. This is a way for me to give back.”