‘It has been a wonderful journey’

Matthew Strother

April 17, 2014

For Ruth Garner, the grand marshal of the 2014 Relay for Life, being named to represent the annual benefit is a humbling experience.

“To represent all of these survivors is such an honor and a responsibility,” Garner said. “To think that you have that privilege to be representing all of the survivors, but I’ll do my best to do a good job. There are a lot more people that deserve this honor more than I do.”

Garner no longer has either of her thyroid glands after she was diagnosed on July 30, 2003, with anaplastic thyroid cancer. However, for her, it was just an obstacle to overcome.

“To be honest it was just one more hurdle in my lifetime, one more mountain I had to climb,” Garner said.

Garner underwent surgery that day to have her left thyroid taken out after a lump had developed, which Garner said could be plainly seen under her skin. However, after the removal, the doctor told her that a test had come back positive for cancer cells.

Instead of going home, she was scheduled for a second surgery the next day to remove her right thyroid to ensure the cancer did not spread. Her vocal chords were damaged during surgery and she awoke unable to speak.

“They said that I probably would never get my voice back, but I did,” Garner said, matter-of-factly.

Garner underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and 31 rounds of radiation treatment. Now 73, the survivor realizes she was lucky that the cancerous lump was visible and doctors were able to take care of it quickly.

“There are a lot of the cancer patients who actually do not see or feel anything until it’s full-grown,” she said.

According to the National Cancer Institute, anaplastic thyroid cancer is the least common type of thyroid cancer, diagnosed in only about one of every 100 people with thyroid cancer. It grows and spreads “very quickly” and “is very hard to control.”

The quick removal of the thyroid likely saved her life.

“It never dawned on me that I was ever going to die from the cancer ordeal,” she said. “… In fact, I told my doctor that that was completely unacceptable.”

Going through chemotherapy was the worst part of the experience for Garner, and she came up with her own nickname for it: “Red Devil Lie.” She also started calling the radiation machine the “human-sized microwave.” Her experience inspired her to begin working on a book recounting her point of view as a cancer patient, tentatively titled “My Journey as a Survivor.”

“Everyone who has the word cancer thrown at them is unique in their own way,” Garner said. “No one has the same reaction, no one goes through what another person goes through … because we’re all different.”

Garner said she has a wonderful home support group. She has three grandchildren who live in town – Chase, Justin and Kailie – by her son Tim Garner, all of whom she credited as in-home support. She also has two grandchildren by a daughter in Texas.

“Chase and Justin have been right by my side since this started, and they have worked with the support group, Paint the Town Pink and the Relay (for Life),” she said.

She also thanked her husband Charles Garner, who also has faced some medical problems recently, for his support at home and in past Relay for Life events. Charles and Tim Garner said they were very proud of Ruth for being chosen as grand marshal for Relay for Life.

Although it’s been almost 11 years since her diagnosis, Ruth Garner says her recovery is ongoing.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer … you might dismiss it in your head and mind, but a doubt is always there,” Garner said. “But as far as my cancer, I don’t worry about. It may come back tomorrow, but if it does, I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

Garner has been involved with Relay for Life for about nine years through her survivor group, the West Georgia Cancer Support Group, which meets the last Monday of each month at the Enoch Callaway Cancer Clinic. She described the relationships she made through the support group as like family, and everyone keeps in touch.

Garner began supporting the Relay nine years ago by selling barbecue tickets for fundraisers and putting up fliers in businesses. She was shocked when she received the call only a couple of weeks ago that she would be grand marshal for this year’s event.

“It has been a wonderful journey,” she said, noting that the one positive thing to come from her experience with cancer is that it lead to her involvement in the relay. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

This year’s Relay for Life with the theme “Colors of Cancer” is set to kick off April 25 at 7 p.m. at the Whitesville Road track, 299 Fort Drive. This year’s fund-raising goal is $110,648.