Amy Powers (left), Weakley West co-chair and event emcee, and Sgt. Paula Norris, Weakley West Honorary chairperson, were in attendance at the Weakley West Relay for Life survivor’s dinner.
BULLETIN: At press time Monday, The Press received the sad news of the death of Weakley West Relay for Life honorary chairman Paula Norris. Family and friends agreed that publication of this story from Thursday night’s survivor’s dinner would honor her memory and her tireless efforts in the fight against cancer.
“On behalf of the American Cancer Society and the committee and team members of Relay for Life of Weakley West, I would like to extend our deepest sympathy to the family of Paula Norris,” Weakley West Relay for Life chairman Katrina Cobb said. “Paula was a great inspiration to all of us — both through her service to our country and through her fight against cancer. We ask God to comfort her family and friends at this time of loss and pledge to honor her memory in this continuing battle.”
Fighters come in all shapes and sizes and battles come in many forms.
Some fighters are leaders of military units, fighting for themselves and the lives of others. Some fighters are diminutive in stature, yet carry enough power to fuel an entire family. And some fighters live life just to a bring a smile to a face and a kind word to a dark day.
Thursday night, such fighters were introduced to a large audience of cancer survivors, friends and family members at the Weakley County West Relay for Life survivor’s dinner at Shepherd’s Field Church.
“I wear this yellow bracelet for cancer survivors and another one for the soldiers I’ve left on the battlefield,” Sgt. Paula Norris told audience members.
Sgt. Norris, an S-4 sergeant for the 194th Engineering Brigade National Guard unit in Jackson, serves as the honorary chairman for this year’s Weakley West event. Her fight has taken place on the battlefields of war and cancer.
Twenty years ago, Sgt. Norris experienced similar feelings, as she would eventually have on a treacherous battlefield in June of 2005.
“I compare the two days to each other because on both days, I felt fear, hopelessness and I saw the world flash before my eyes. Twenty years ago, there was a chance I had ovarian cancer, but I had another test done and God spared me because another disease was found,” Sgt. Norris recalled.
Sgt. Norris’ mother, however, is a cancer survivor and her family, who has a strong history of cancer, urges all five daughters to go for regular checkups to prevent further battles from being fought. Two of Sgt. Norris’ sisters have had colon cancer and are “hanging in,” she said.
She monitors the lifestyle of her young son and makes sure every step is taken to prevent cancer ever coming in to his life.
Sgt. Norris emphasized how much it means to her to be involved with a large group of fighters who want to live and will take all measures to ensure life continues.
“It’s inspiring to me to be around people who want to live,” Sgt. Norris confessed. “We deploy soldiers all over the world and lots of our soldiers are cancer survivors. I spoke to a WWII veteran the other day. That’s a survivor, too. Please keep the soldiers in mind.”
And then there is Glory Williams – another fighter of a different kind who succumbed to the battle, but serves as one of this year’s posthumous honorary chairmen. Her sister, Glandia Brasfield, spoke of a person who was always active until she had to be told to quit.
Ms. Williams was a person who loved family and God. She rooted for the Duke University Blue Devils and insisted on wearing earth tones and suits rather than dresses.
She was a health-conscious person who scheduled regular physical exams.
Ms. Brasfield recalled the time after one of those exams in 2003. She lived across the road from her sister and they were going to Bible study.
Ms. Brasfield noticed her sister was wearing a dress rather than her usual suit and when she inquired about it, Ms. Williams admitted she was unable to button her pants due to some discomfort. The doctor had found a spot on one of Ms. Williams’ ovaries, but Ms. Williams told her sister not to worry – that all was fine.
The following Monday, she went to the doctor for a bladder infection and made an appointment with a gynecologist.
Two days later, she was handed the news that she had ovarian cancer.
“From the very beginning, she said, ‘I will fight this.’ She was only four-foot-11, but she had a huge heart. We went with her to West Clinic in Memphis and she was told it was stage four cancer.
She maintained, ‘That’s okay. I will beat this,’” Ms. Brasfield recalled.
Ms. Williams drove back and forth to Memphis for her surgery and chemotherapy while still working her job in the University Relations office at UT Martin and serving on several boards and as usher and greeter at her church.
Out of seven brothers and two sisters, Ms. Williams was the only one with cancer and also the only person not visibly upset about it.
She continued to fight the disease while becoming actively involved in Relay for Life and sticking to her normal routine until September of 2004 when her doctor told her to quit work. It was the only time Ms. Brasfield saw her sister shed tears.
As the cancer advanced, Ms. Williams began taking treatments in Jackson and it was there that she saw pink balloons – what cancer patients are given when chemotherapy treatments are finished.
She made a decision that when the end came, she wanted her brothers and sisters to release the pink balloons at the burial site. That November, Ms. Williams’ small body gave up the fight.
Later on, one of her brothers would be diagnosed with bladder cancer. He won his battle.
“She fought with such great integrity,” Ms. Brasfield concluded. “She taught me how to live.”
Mark Dowden, a person very familiar to Weakley West Relay for Life, remembered a special aunt in his life who became his best friend.
Though he regrets not having had more time with her, he credits his aunt, Ruth Dowden, to bringing his family together during tough times and ensuring they remained close despite the usual family differences.
Dowden described his aunt as a “tireless worker” who put love into each and every country breakfast she served his family. She was a fighter and an encouragement, but she knew when to inflict a stern nature and an adherence to right over wrong.
Coming from a family with a long history of cancer, she lived longer than most of them – to the age of 53.
Dowden recalled four or five years ago when he first became close to his aunt. They opened up to each other, but Dowden could sense something was wrong. As a worker at Volunteer Community Hospital, he saw his aunt’s appointment notices, but also thought they were none of his business — until they became more frequent.
“She’d come and see me in my office and she never left without telling me she loved me and that she’d see me on Sunday. Our family had gotten closer at this time and we picked back up with the tradition of having Sunday meals together,” Dowden said.
“Our newfound bond brought us closer and closer and she began to tell me about the doctor’s visits. The pictures became clearer and my heart grew heavy. Aunt Ruth never let on, but I knew.”
As reality began to take shape, Dowden realized what he might be losing – a best friend, a person who lived to see him smile and laugh and a constant supporter. He heard the grim news, saw the type of look he’d seen at many times with Relay for Life and began researching.
Despite the procedures and treatments, Dowden’s aunt continued to work and fix the big breakfasts for her family. She won the battle, but years later, she experienced neck pain and was given a CT scan. The test revealed three tumors lodged in her brain. Immediately, she began the fight all over again with the motto, “I’ve beaten it once and I can do it again.”
Relying heavily on her nephew’s support, a role reversal of when she’d always supported him, and the support of Relay for Life and friends, she never gave up but succumbed to cancer on a Monday morning surrounded by friends and family.
Despite anger, tears and confusion, her nephew was comforted and honored to find out that his aunt and best friend had requested him to play the piano at her funeral.
“I loved her,” Dowden reminded the audience. “Her fight encourages me. You have to fight for those you love.”
Weakley County plays host to three Relay for Life events in the month of June. The first, Weakley Southwest, encompasses the City of Greenfield and will take place June 3-4 at the Greenfield School football field. Weakley West Relay for Life encompasses the cities of Martin and Sharon and will take place June 10-11 in the UT Martin football field parking lot or at Shepherd’s Field in the event of rain. The final event, Weakley East Relay for Life, encompasses Dresden, Gleason, Latham and Palmersville.
It is set to take place June 17-18 at the West Tennessee Motorsports Park off Highway 22 between Dresden and Gleason.
The survivor’s dinner for Weakley Southwest will take place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Greenfield City Park Pavilion and the survivor’s dinner for Weakley East will take place at 6 p.m. June 2 at Gleason First Baptist Church.
As Katrina Cobb, chairman of the Weakley West Relay for Life, emphasizes, all three Relay for Life events place Weakley County at No. 4 in the state and No. 5 in the nation in terms of money raised for the American Cancer Society.
Additionally, the MTD team ranks as one of the top sponsors in the nation for fundraising efforts.
The Press will publish a special section highlighting the Relay events in further detail and offering tips on how to maintain good health.