Woerner family gift helps ease financial burden for families impacted by cancer

Although Otto Woerner’s giving was not widely known, he was a philanthropist in every sense of the word. Much of the support he gave to several organizations in Burke County, N.C., was anonymous, or kept quiet at his request. So was one of his final contributions, a large gift to UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Otto and Betty Woerner - photo used in Dec 2013 Cancer Lines

Now Otto’s widow Betty Woerner and son Drew Woerner are comfortable sharing the story of Otto’s generosity in the hopes that others will follow Otto’s wonderful example and contribute to the Betty and Otto Woerner Endowment Fund at Lineberger. The fund provides direct financial support for cancer patients and their families, helping to alleviate the many nonmedical costs that come during cancer treatment. Otto’s intent was to help cancer patients at UNC Lineberger with expenses related to rent, mortgage payments, utilities and groceries and other necessary items a family might need.

Otto died in June 2013, at age 93, less than a month before his 94th birthday, “still sharp as a tack,” said Drew.

Cancer has had a deep effect on the Woerner family. Otto’s first wife (and Drew’s mother) Wynne died of breast cancer in 2001. Drew’s sister Kathy died from glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer, in 2011. Drew himself had bladder cancer before coming up with a rare form of head and neck cancer. He was treated at UNC Hospitals for the head and neck cancer, and is now cancer-free. Also, Drew’s son Tom was treated and surgically cured for epilepsy at UNC.

“When I was getting my treatment, everyone at UNC was terrific,” Drew recalled. “The nurses are great, everyone is trained so well. Even the woman at the Lineberger Cancer registration desk remembered my name every time I came for chemo and radiation. It was just amazing.

“When my dad was looking for a place to make a major donation, he knew that both Tom and I had great experiences at UNC,” Drew continued. “He was also friends with John and Anne Wilson of Morganton, whose late daughter Katherine was treated at Lineberger. So he wanted to make his gift there. Dad was also impressed with the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program within the N.C. Cancer Hospital and viewed it as a model in the nation. He felt they would be good stewards of his funds.”

Dr. Don Rosenstein, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program helped set up the distribution of the fund along with the Woerners so that as many patients with demonstrated need could be assisted without a lot of red tape. The cancer support program includes patient education, counseling, nutrition, symptom management, survivorship, caregiver support, and financial aid for patients. It was this last area that excited Otto Woerner, Rosenstein said, because living with cancer requires tremendous resources of all kinds.

“In addition to the physical and emotional toll it takes, cancer is among the leading causes of personal bankruptcy in this country,” Rosenstein said. “Treatment can last years. People obviously lose time off from work, and may even lose their jobs. Treatments are expensive and not all are covered.”

On top of the medical bills, there are significant personal expenditures, Rosenstein said. Patients at Lineberger come from all 100 North Carolina counties, and beyond.

“The fund provides direct financial assistance to patients whose cancer care is threatened by their financial situation,” Rosenstein said. “Otto was very thoughtful about his philanthropy. It was most important to him that people who needed it had support.”

Together with Drew, Betty said she is telling Otto’s story so other people know about the fund at Lineberger.

“That is my hope, to honor him, to tell his story and what the fund is for,” she said.

“Maybe if people knew the story, they would be willing to contribute or even establish their own fund like Otto did.”

Drew and his wife Tammy have also become members of the Lineberger Board of Visitors, and enjoy learning how UNC Lineberger is fast becoming one of the best comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. Like Betty, they encourage others to participate in supporting this outstanding institution.