Five locals set to receive Courage Award at telethon
The Tamaqua-Carbon American Cancer Society will hand out its annual “Courage Awards” this weekend during its annual telethon at Penn’s Peak in Jim Thorpe.
Recipients are Heidi Hooper, of Tannersville; Dawn Ferrante Hart, of Wallenpaupack; Tom Connors, of Weatherly; Jillian Datchko, of Tamaqua, and Sierra Thomas, of Summit Hill.
The telethon runs from noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday.
Proactive and perseverance.
Heidi Hooper never gave up. The only way to stop the cancer was receiving a ton of radiation, which essentially left her incapable of using one of her arms.
“Sometimes I still get choked up,” Hooper said. “I was only like 35 and I lost everything. I was just starting to get on my feet as a business and all the sudden, I couldn’t do it anymore. Every day, I tried something that I didn’t know how to do. I’d try it for a week, if it wasn’t my thing, it wasn’t my thing.”
Hooper used to make metal armor for female jousters, but due to cancer, can barely use her fingers. She kept working to find a niche skill - and she found it.
Hooper makes phenomenal artwork with dryer lint.
“I just spent my time trying to figure out something to do with it. People have given me all kinds of throws and blankets as get-well gifts. That’s kind of what started it,” Hooper said.
“I do most of what anyone would do with a paint brush. I do it with tweezers and dryer lint. It’s layers upon layers.”
Hooper said she treated each day like a new adventure.
“Basically, the artwork is all about survival, so to speak. I do the work and I am in hopes that someone sees the piece, that it brings a smile.
“Even if it hurts like hell, you have to keep at it. The one thing I realized, at one point, is that as much emotion as you’re going through with the whole cancer thing, the people around you are going through the same. I found that if I did something that I accomplish each day, that I can be happy about it made their day, too.”
Hooper, originally from Virginia, resides in Tannersville. She was surprised to be selected as a courage award recipient.
“I’m still kind of digesting it. It’s hard to voice an opinion. I’m still in a state of shock for lack of a better word. I hope I am an example that encourages people to push through it.”
Dawn Ferrante Hart
Dawn Ferrante Hart had been in the spotlight for many years due to her employment in the public sector.
Ferrante Hart began her local work in economic development as director of the Carbon County Economic Development Department in 2009.
In 2013, she became the first executive director of the Carbon Chamber and Economic Development Corp.
Ferrante Hart then left to join the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., and then worked for the city of Easton as its economic director for about four years.
She said her husband, who had been semiretired, decided he wanted to open a business, and she decided to join him.
The couple’s business, Bulldog Liquidators, in Brodheadsville, has been open since 2018.
While things seemed well, it turns out they weren’t for Ferrante Hart upon going for a routine colonoscopy.
“Whole thing was kind of a big shock,” Ferrante Hart said. “I was supposed to get a routine colonoscopy right before the pandemic, everything got shut down, and that all got put off.”
Ferrante Hart said she went to her doctor, but wasn’t having any real symptoms, aside from feeling a little tired at times.
“It never even computed that there would be anything wrong,” she said. After her colonoscopy, her doctor came out and told her she had a very large tumor in her colon and needed to have it removed immediately. “I still wasn’t even sure if it was cancer; I kind of walked out completely stunned, there was no warning signs whatsoever.”
Ferrante Hart said it’s a good thing she had the procedure done when she did.
“They said if I waited even a few months more, that it would have spread into nearby tissue, so I had it cut out on June 29, and they tested all of the tissue surrounding it and they removed 59 lymph nodes,” she said. “They basically said I didn’t have to do any follow-up chemo, but closely monitor it for the next three years, so we’re not totally out of the woods yet, but I am a very, very, very lucky story.”
Ferrante Hart stressed the need to not put off the procedure.
“It just shows how important testing is,” she said. “I think people are scared to get a colonoscopy, but the alternative is you could have little or no symptoms and have a tumor that could advance to the point of no return; it could kill you,” she said. “It’s incredibly important; I can’t stress enough.”
A few short weeks after the procedure, Ferrante Hart said all appears well.
“I feel good, I’m back at work,” she said. “So far so good, I just feel very, very lucky.”
Ferrante Hart said she’s grateful to receive the Courage Award.
“I think sometimes you don’t want everybody to know your business, but I said yes, because I really want people to see that this could be them,” she said. “You can be 52 years old, not have had a colonoscopy, and basically have a 4-inch tumor inside of you and not know it. You could die from it.”
Ferrante Hart, who resides in Lake Wallenpaupack, added, “I really need to wake people up to how serious it can be. Colon cancer is considered the silent killer.
“I just want people to get checked,” she said. “If only one person does as a result, it will be worth it.”
“The dog guy.”
As director of the Carbon County Animal Shelter, Tom Connors maintains a busy schedule.
About nine months ago, Connors, of Weatherly, was diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer.
“I was very fortunate that my family doctor caught it with blood work, and I was treated with radiation,” Connors said. “I’ve had 44 radiation treatments, and I’m on the mend to being better.”
Connors remains upbeat.
“I go back to my urologist next week, and hopefully the numbers will show that the radiation has done its job,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a good report from my doctor next week.”
Connors said he knows all about the disease.
“I understand what cancer’s about,” he said. “I have family members that have survived cancer, and some have lost their fight.”
Connors said he and his family have worked with the American Cancer Society, and added they’ve had a Relay for Life team.
“When you’re diagnosed and told you have it, it’s like a kick in the throat,” he said. “It’s very tough, very scary.”
Connors said he considers himself to be lucky.
“I’m very fortunate in that I have a great support system; my wife has been there for me 100%, we have seven kids, along with family and friends,” he said. “The folks that know me from my work at the animal shelter all reached out to me; it was overwhelming their support.”
Connors said he makes it a point whenever possible to share his story with as many people as he can.
“I talk about my story because of the chance you can help others,” he said. “With cancer, early detection is key.
“Any time I can help anybody, I want to do that. The key is to be positive, and live life every day.”
Connors said if there’s any lesson cancer has taught him, it’s to never take anything for granted.
“I learned to appreciate all the blessings that I have,” he said. “I always wanted to ride a motorcycle and never did; after I finished my treatment, I took lessons and bought myself a Harley-Davidson, which I’m really happy and proud about.
He said he’s closer to his wife than ever before. “We just enjoy life to the fullest, and that’s the key, to be positive.”
Connors said it’s important for people to know there is help out there.
“The American Cancer Society has many, many resources for folks,” he said. “Even though it’s certainly very scary and frightening to hear you have cancer, know you’re not alone, and reach out for help it you need it.”
Family and faith.
The Tamaqua native was diagnosed with primary CNS lymphoma in May 2019.
“When I was told I had cancer, it took me a couple weeks to understand,” said Datchko.
“I didn’t understand the severity of it until I had a doctor come to me and say you were very near death. After that, I realized I was fighting for my life. This isn’t just something you hear about or see on television.”
Datchko said she was misdiagnosed for a few months leading up to May 2019. Treatments locally initially worked, but then the effectiveness stopped. She was then sent to NIH Bethesda where two clinical trials worked for roughly a month, and then also stopped working.
After each treatment, tumors came back and the cancer was stronger.
But in February 2020, it was off to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Datchko underwent CAR T therapy for 14 weeks during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic - she did not see her family over the entire duration of the treatment.
“They took T-cells out of my blood and sent them to a lab to basically train the cells to fight my cancer, and then multiply them and put them back into me,” Datchko explained.
“I saw how hard my family was fighting for me, too - especially my son. He is 14 now. I wasn’t going to leave him, so I fought.”
The therapy worked and Datchko is now cancer-free.
“My doctors had a passion. They wanted to cure me. They would say we’re not going to let you die. You have to have faith. I’ve been Catholic my whole life. … Going through this, my faith has gotten so much stronger, and I learned so much - just prayer and believing.”
Datchko lives in Tamaqua with her son, Brady, and fiance, Kyle. She is a courage award recipient.
“I’m very honored, because I feel every single person who battles cancer is very courageous, because it’s very scary.”
The rough days gave her more strength to pull through.
In 2019, Sierra Thomas was dealing with stomach pains. It turned out to be colon cancer.
“They took blood work and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Then there was inflammation in my colon, because they did a colonoscopy. That’s when they found a big tumor mass - almost completely blocking my colon,” she said.
An initial biopsy came back negative, but a PET scan then showed spots in her liver, which prompted a second biopsy.
“That’s when they called back after a few days and they said it spread to my liver,” said Thomas, age 22.
She started her treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “They tried different combinations of chemotherapies, to see what exactly would start attacking the tumor and the spots in my liver. They got the spots to go down a little bit, but they stayed the same after awhile. We kept trying different things.”
An oncologist suggested the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, which provides a rare type of treatment.
“They do a certain device there called a hepatic pump, for your liver, that directly feeds chemo into the liver, and not the rest of your body. If I were to get surgery to get that tumor taken out in my colon, and not the spots out of my liver, they could just directly attack that.
She went through an eight-hour surgery to remove the tumor from her colon.
“They were able to get the big tumor in my colon and they actually had to take my gallbladder out to put the pump there, because it’s basically the size of a hockey puck. They did take the spots out of my liver and I’ve been doing four different chemos since - it’s been a year since I got surgery.”
Thomas has to travel to New Jersey or New York for chemo - the closest two destinations that specialize in the hepatic pump treatment.
“I was off chemo for a few months, and everything was looking fine, but the spot came back on my liver and they’ve been keeping an eye on it. They got it down to where it’s almost gone. They’re worried every time I get off, the spots would come back - and that’s why they are slowly weaning me off the chemo right now.”
Thomas wants to spread awareness that cancer can very well be genetic.
“It’s called FAP. Obviously, I was born with it - it came off my dad’s side of the family. But they think that the tumor could have started growing since I was 10 or 15 years old. It causes multiple polyps throughout your colon. I never knew that it could be a genetic thing, that’s what I want to tell a lot of people who don’t know about that type of issue or aren’t informed it.”
She found out the beginning of last month that she would be an award recipient - and she was surprised.
“A small-town girl, it’s kind of crazy,” Thomas added.
She lives in Summit Hill with her husband, Jesse.
“It’s going to be hard sometimes, but it gives you more strength to pull through that and put a smile on your face to live your life and be happy. You only have one life to live.”