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By Sandra Coopersmith
Features Writer 

Keeping the Light of Resiliency Glowing


September 23, 2021

Cancer hasn't taken a "time out" because of the pandemic and must be addressed. Accordingly, the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life of Baldwin Hills, which also includes the communities of Culver City, Ladera Heights, View Park, Windsor Hills, Crenshaw, and Leimert Park, was held Saturday, September 18th between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Yvonne B. Burke Athletic Complex, 5401 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90056. Although truncated, it was powerful and meaningful.

As a cancer survivor, I have participated in many, many Relays. This one was a much more intimate event and masks were worn. Upon arriving I started working in the Luminaria tent, helping to letter and decorate the bags that were available for a $10 donation in honor or memory of those affected by cancer. Later that evening the Welcome Enlightening Ceremony took place, followed by the Luminaria Celebration.

As different as this Relay was, it was still all about keeping hope alive, honoring survivors, remembering those we've lost, and people helping people. I interviewed three of those dedicated individuals: Barbara Lawson, Debbie Dixon, and Brenda Lavender.

As a school nurse at Sixty-Eighth Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, one of Barbara Lawson's activities involved putting on health fairs. In the mid-1990s she recruited American Cancer Society as a participant. She then started going to Relay For Life events and met Troy Green of the Green Team, which was formed to honor his wife, Kim, who died of colon cancer. Lawson decided to create a team of her own, Charlie's Angel, named after her mother who died of stomach cancer some years earlier.

She is involved with advocacy through ACS CAN (, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and lauded its efforts in Sacramento and Washington, DC regarding the funding of vital research.

"Never give up," she urged. "The fight continues, Stay connected with your community so we can all help each other." She emphasized "the importance of diet and exercise and the need to avoid grease, sugar, salt, and white flour" and recommended the American Cancer Society's website,, for helpful information. I can attest to its value, having recently gone there and also called the 24/7 number, 1-800-227-2345, to speak with an information specialist in order to obtain information for a friend whose little grandniece was diagnosed with childhood leukemia.

Debbie Dixon has had way too much experience with cancer in her family. What about herself? "So far, so good," she said. "I just have bad knees."

And bad knees, which are no picnic, never sounded so good, given that her mother had lung cancer, her dad had colon cancer, and her grandmother had breast cancer.

As if that weren't enough, her brothers and her husband, Dr. Lowell Theard, all had prostate cancer. "My husband, who died in October of 2019, used to be a speaker each year at Relay until he was too sick to do so," Dixon said. "His twin brother died in April of this year."

Madeline Wilson, a triple negative breast cancer survivor, captain of the Green Team and one of the most diligent volunteers in existence, has been Dixon's friend for around 30 years. "I knew Kim, Troy Green's wife," Dixon explained. "I joined the Green Team because of Madeline, Troy's aunt, and I have been actively involved since the Green Team started. My most important message is the importance of early detection. Go for your annual exams!"

When asked why she Relays against cancer, Brenda Lavender responded that "I participate because cancer has burned through my family, leaving scorched earth in my heart.

"Just this past May I lost my youngest brother to cancer, and he is the third brother. Losing this brother was devastating because one day he was perfectly healthy and the next he had cancer, and there was nothing we could do to save him from a horrible battle that he couldn't win. This loss should've been preventable, we are supposed to catch colon cancer early and have the ability to deal with it, but we didn't. It makes me wonder if we are really making progress with this disease. I've lost three aunts, my uncle has come through cancer three times, and more friends have been affected than I can name. My best friend lost her young husband to cancer, with two little boys to raise.

"I hate cancer!" she emphatically declared. "I want to be a part of seeing it eradicated. I can't cure it myself so the most that I can do is continue to fundraise for the people who can cure this disease. Working with the American Cancer Society and the Baldwin Hills Relay allows me to raise funds for the mission, meet other people who share my fight, and raise awareness."

As for me, this November will mark my 30th anniversary as a breast cancer survivor, having been diagnosed on November 4, 1991 with my mastectomy one week later on Veterans Day. I've been involved as a volunteer for many years and participated in the Culver City Relay until it was rolled into the Relay For Life of Baldwin Hills a few years ago, at which time I joined the Green Team.

I felt honored to be the Survivor Speaker and, since I've often received questions at Relays about my getup, decided to describe the story behind the wide-brimmed beribboned hat I wear as well as the little sandwich board with a portrait on each side. As an artist I wanted to make a visual statement, so the ribbons bear the names of those whom my sponsors wish to honor, plus the mini sandwich board bears portraits I drew of Judy Glazer and Toni Tyrer, two very dear friends who died a few years ago.

After Judy and her family moved to Arroyo Grande she developed breast cancer and, with a coworker, created a Relay team called ChemoKickers, to which she was devoted. In early 2010 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and asked me to promise I would walk with her at her June 2010 Relay. But by then she was comatose so I drew her portrait from memory and wore it when I went up that weekend to walk with her team. She died later that night, but with the drawing we did indeed walk together.

Madeline Wilson

Sandra Coopersmith (cancer survivor) working in the Luminaria tent and her drawing of Judy Glazer.

Toni, who was from Chile, was my best friend and became my extraordinary caregiver during my recovery. What she said to me when, through torrents of tears, I told her I had breast cancer and didn't know if I'd make it, became the mantra I live by to this day and share every chance I get.

"I want you to remember this," she said. "Mano firme y triunfaremos (firm hand and we will triumph), the rallying cry of the Chilean patriots during our war for independence from Spain in the 1800s. Mano firme!"

To triump in our quest to be free of this disease requires funding for research and support services. I'm pleased to report that as of September 18th this Relay generated $33,351, of which my number was $6,160. Anyone wishing to donate can still do so by going to

By an intriguing coincidence, September 18th happened to be Chile's Independence Day, so to all the donors, a huge thank you (plus a heartfelt virtual hug to mine) for their vital role in putting mano firme y triunfaremos into action.


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