Major gift, cancer survivors highlights of Blue Ribbon Gala

UNC Lineberger's celebration of its donors, faculty and patients is capped off by a $10 million donation by Etteinne “ET” and W. G. Champion “Champ” Mitchell of New Bern, North Carolina, to support blood cancer research.

Major gift, cancer survivors highlights of Blue Ribbon Gala click to enlarge W. G. Champion “Champ” and Etteinne “ET” Mitchell with Katherine Shea, MD, and Thomas C. Shea, MD, the John William Pope Distinguished Professor in Cancer Research and Champ Mitchell's oncologist.
Major gift, cancer survivors highlights of Blue Ribbon Gala click to enlarge Alex Werden, UNC women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell and Stuart Gold, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at UNC Lineberger.

UNC Lineberger’s Blue Ribbon Gala fundraiser on Friday attracted many of the cancer center’s most generous supporters, its faculty and its patients. In addition to black-tie clad guests and luminaries, hope was also in attendance that evening.

Hope was seen in the faces of cancer survivors and their families as they shared their aspirations for the future. Hope was a driving force behind their work, conveyed by doctors and researchers in video messages. And hope is what spurred donors to support both UNC Lineberger and the patients it serves. It was truly a night to celebrate today’s best care and tomorrow’s best hope.

WRAL’s medical reporter Allen Mask, MD, was the evening’s emcee. Joining him was a lineup of speakers, including H. Shelton Earp, MD, director of UNC Lineberger, Robert Blouin, PharmD, UNC provost, David Routh, UNC vice chancellor of development, Lisa Carey, MD, Hyman Muss, MD, and Thomas Shea, MD.

The gala celebrated UNC Lineberger’s commitment to offering today’s best care and tomorrow’s best hope and featured a few award presentations and one notable announcement.

Etteinne “ET” and W. G. Champion “Champ” Mitchell of New Bern, North Carolina, drew hearty applause and cheers when it was announced that they were donating $10 million to create a fund supporting ground-breaking research in blood cancer at UNC Lineberger.

Blouin spoke about how research at UNC Lineberger is leading to better treatments that improve a patient’s chance to beat cancer. “When I think about the role that Lineberger plays, I always have in the back of my mind that someone out there is waiting for that next cure. And what Lineberger offers the people of North Carolina and beyond is the opportunity have that cure.”

Earp discussed the importance of focusing on both science and patient care, which is a point of pride for UNC Lineberger. “While research is the pathway to cures for cancer, we offer hope every day by providing that care to each and every patient as compassionately as we can.”

That compassionate spirit is alive and well in UNC Lineberger supporters, including Drew and Tammy Woerner, who are also cancer survivors. The Woerners support the Patient and Family Resource Center, which was important to Drew Woerner’s father, Otto, who started the fund the Woerners maintain.

“[My father] didn’t want anybody who needed health care to go without it,” Drew Woerner said. “Tammy and I have continued to give a little bit every year so people don’t need to worry about getting groceries or getting chemo. We know when you walk into the cancer center, it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, a nurse or a housekeeper, you’ll get fantastic care.”

The John William Pope Foundation, along with foundation chairman Art Pope and UNC Lineberger Board of Visitors member Joyce Pope, was also recognized for a $5 million gift for The John William Pope “Tomorrow’s Best Hope” Endowed Fellowship Fund.

“When we made the decision to support cancer research and treatment, my father challenged us to give where it would make the most difference. We came to the conclusion that the best place to invest was right here at Lineberger,” Art Pope said.

Hope was most evident through the words and presence of several cancer survivors. Rengate Alston spoke about waking up each day feeling grateful. He sends out motivational text messages to help spread the hope he feels on a daily basis. “I am grateful for what they do,” he said of the team at UNC Lineberger.

Lanier Swann Hodgson spoke about her role at the School of Medicine and the two children she had after surviving cancer. “I hold two babies when I go home at night because you choose to support our cancer center.”

Alex Werden shared his cancer journey, which started while he was a cadet at West Point and led to his treatment at UNC Lineberger. He was able to return to West Point, to graduate and earn a medical waiver that allowed him to commission as an officer in the U. S. Army. “Cancer, while being a setback, also opened up new doors I never thought would be open,” he said.

But 15-year-old Ashley Burnette conveyed the spirit of optimism and gratitude felt by the entire crowd when she spoke the following words: “UNC Lineberger is what cured me. The fact that I was able to call this place my home is just a blessing.”