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Cancer telethon overcomes pandemic challenges

The American Cancer Society telethon committee wasn’t going to let a historic pandemic stop them.

Joe Krushinsky, telethon chairman, postponed the telethon in April when the area moved into red phase, but didn’t give up.

“Cancer doesn’t stop. Why should we?” became the mantra as a social distancing telethon was pulled together to air on cable channels and livestreaming on YouTube this weekend.

Krushinsky will be alone on the telethon stage, with various hosts throughout the area: Lansford, Pottsville, Stroudsburg and Bethlehem. The house band will be performing from The Hofford Mill, while other performers are connecting live from their locations or have sent a video. In some instances past performances will be aired.

One of the highlights of the telethon is the Courage Award presentations.

The Courage Award gives recognition to a person who has shown resilience as they meet the challenges of their personal battle with cancer.

This year’s courage award winners are Donna Laughlin of Tamaqua, Theresa Long of Drums, Todd Martin of Stroud Township and Mary Kay Baker of Bethlehem.

Donna Laughlin

Donna Laughlin was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, after she discovered a lump in her breast.

“I woke up Saturday morning and felt it and said, ‘Something’s wrong,’?” the 56-year-old Tamaqua resident recalls.

On Sunday, it was still there and on Monday she contacted the doctor, who immediately scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound. The following Monday she had a biopsy.

“If you sense something is wrong, you have to act fast,” she said.

She had stage 3 breast cancer and four lymph nodes were affected.

She opted for a double mastectomy and reconstruction. “In hindsight it was the wisest decision,” she said.

Cancer was found in the other breast as well.

“I would tell anybody, ‘Why go through (surgery) a second time?’?”

She had a lot of pain from the surgery. “I think they should tell you that,” she said. Her family and friends were there to see her through.

Her husband, Tom; daughter, Jennifer and her mother, Mary Ann, helped to care for her.

People from Luigi’s restaurant where she has worked for the past 13 years came and brought meals. They offered to take her to doctor’s appointments.

Most importantly, “When I wanted to cry, they let me cry,” she said.

She took oral chemotherapy and is on hormone therapy now. Every six months she goes to the doctor faithfully for checkups, waiting for the all-clear message.

Her healing was more complicated because she had two strokes, the most recent one was last week.

She has residual lymphedema in her arm from the surgeries and is working to get stronger.

“I just fight,” she said. She goes to church and relies on God’s strength.

She loves spending time with her granddaughters, Eris, 11, and Piper, 6.

Laughlin said she doesn’t do well sitting still or resting, but she is following doctor’s orders. She has to reduce her hours at the restaurant because of her second stroke, but she is doing what she needs to.

“Her advice to others is, “Don’t give up. Keep fighting and make each day the best it can be.”

Todd Martin

At age 44, doctors told Todd Martin that he had multiple myeloma and plasmacytoma. Without drastic treatment, they figured he had two months to live.

Fifteen years later, he is still fighting the battle.

The recently retired Monroe County sheriff has spent time making trips to Philadelphia for tests.

That first year he had two stem cell transplants and was in remission by Christmas. Cancer has returned twice.

He was first diagnosed when he began having pain in his side. He had been coaching youth sports and just thought he overdid it. When he didn’t get better, he went to the doctor and heard the diagnosis. He was at the top of his career, teaching D.A.R.E. programs in schools and had a family with three children.

“To get this was a shock,” he said.

As a politician he had lots of friends. But he found his true friends when he fell ill and his neighbors came to mow his grass and do other property maintenance. His main concern was for his children, seeing them grow up, graduate, get married.

“My children have been there since Day 1,” he said.

In the beginning, he wanted to just see his daughter, Karli, graduate from his high school. He did. Then came his son, Jared. He graduated. His daughter, Kelli, graduated. He was there for Karli’s wedding and the birth of her two children.

Always a man of faith, his devotion became even stronger through these years. Wanting to share joy, he has become a wedding celebrant and looks forward to performing the ceremonies for his children as well as others.

He’s grateful for the people who rallied around him and now is giving back. He has been involved with support for others with myeloma and their families and has traveled around the country talking to people about the disease. “If I can help two or three people it’s worth it,” he said.

“I’m a lucky man,” he said. “At 61 I am still here. I lived a good life, have a fantastic family and the honor of having true friends.”

Theresa Long

Theresa Long was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994 when she was 34 years old.

She had pain in her breast and was concerned, though it’s often said that breast cancer tumors are painless.

The doctor gave her an antibiotic, thinking it was an infection. But the pain didn’t go away.

The former vice president of nursing for Blue Mountain Gnaden Huetten and Palmerton campuses went through 12 weeks of radiation and a course of tamoxifen.

But in 2007 a routine mammogram showed the tumor in her other breast. It was a defiant type of cancer.

“I was devastated. I had two small children, ages 4 and 6,” she said.

She went to Philadelphia for a second opinion, and before any treatment the doctor recommended BRCA2 genetic testing because she had two bouts of breast cancer before the age of 50.

She did have it.

“I sat and cried. I knew I would need a double mastectomy,” Long said. She opted for breast reconstruction at the same time. Doctors would use fat and blood vessels from her stomach.

Before she did, the doctor recommended having her ovaries removed. That’s when they discovered precancerous cells in her fallopian tube.

“I dodged a bigger bullet,” Long said. “Having breast cancer the second time saved my life.”

A carcinoid tumor was found in the left lung in 2018. The doctor said the tumor was in a tough place, close to the heart, but he thought he could get it.

“I was prepared that I might not make it,” Long said. He removed half of her lung.

She said, “I am not only alive, but I am the CEO of a hospital.”

Now the Chief Executive Officer at Danville State Hospital says she does “whatever I can do inspire other people.”

She spoke at the Pink Light Walk in Lehighton and often meets with other women.

Throughout the ordeal, she managed to get a master’s degree and now teaches psychiatric nursing and leadership clinicals at Wilkes University, where she was nominated for adjunct faculty of the year.

She lives in Drums with her husband, David, and sons, Morgan, 19 and Noah, 17.

Mary Kay Baker

Mary Kay Baker was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2007 and uterine cancer in 2010. Today, she serves as co-chair with the Colleges Against Cancer group at Lehigh University, where she has worked for the past 34 years.

She shares her story and asks for donations, starting with an apology.

“Sorry I have to ask again, but we still haven’t cured cancer - and your next dollar may be the one that’s going to help do just that,” she tells people.

“Having cancer is never easy - but I certainly learned a lot about myself, but also so much about the goodness in others during my cancer ‘journeys,’” she said.

“Thinking back to 2007, I have to admit, I was shocked to hear those three words - you have cancer. I was what I thought was a healthy, active 47-year-old, living a good life - I was the single mom of a challenging 17-year-old daughter - but we were finding our way together and I was as happy and content as the mom of a teenager could be,” Baker said.

Her diagnosis resulted in a surgery, a six-day hospital stay and seven months of chemotherapy.

“Anyone who has been through chemo knows it is no walk in the park - I thought I’d be this strong, courageous woman - but there were some long, long days in there when I didn’t even like being around me,” Baker said.

Her daughter, Lauren, had been accepted to the University of Delaware for the coming fall.

She didn’t want to go.

“Although she never vocalized it, I could see the fear in her eyes - we couldn’t lose each other.”

Baker told her they would not let cancer define them, change them or change her plans.

Her mother, age 77, drove from Florida to take care of her for six months.

“I can honestly say I don’t know that I would have survived that without her!”

Baker was there in 2011 when Lauren graduated from the University of Delaware. Her daughter is now married and she has a 17-month-old grandson named Liam Jameson Connolly and three step-grandchildren, Olivia, Cassidy and Conor, who is 2 weeks old.

“Being ‘Gigi’ to these four is one of the great joys in my life!

“As a survivor, I have felt an obligation to give back.” Baker said.

Telethon chairman Joe Krushinsky accepts a check from Mary Ann Dulaney and Jess Kutza during the 2019 telethon. The format is much different this year because of social distancing. Donations and performances will be virtual. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO
Donna Laughlin
Todd Martin
Theresa Long
Mary Kay Baker