Meet Our 2021 Honorees
OUR INSPIRATION & REASON TO CELEBRATE!
Pediatric Brain Cancer
I am an 11 year old fifth grader at Farragut Intermediate School. I was diagnosed with multiple inoperable brain tumors at just 4 years old. I have a shunt that helps with the flow of cerebral spinal fluid and have been on various types of chemotherapy treatments over the last seven years. In the early months of my diagnosis, I was told I would likely never walk again, relying on a wheelchair to stay mobile. However, today you can find me, playing offensive line for Farragut Youth Football, taking on endurance challenges in a Spartan class, or helping my dad with a project in the backyard.
While my progress is amazing, there are still challenges that I face daily. One of the tumors has left me entirely blind in my right eye and mostly blind in my left. Each day I take eight chemo pills (four in the morning and four at night). Every three months, I have an MRI and echocardiogram to assess the effectiveness of my treatment. My battle is a lifelong journey, but not one that is going to stop me from doing what I love!
Lung & Ampullary Cancer Founder
Jack Elliott, Founder & Owner of Elliott's Boots & Shoes
On March 19th, 2016, my wife and I were in Mexico City attending a friend’s wedding when I got a call with the bad news, I had lung cancer. Fortunately, I had the good fortune to have Dr Lacy Harville as my surgeon. Dr Harville had performed heart by-pass surgery on me in 1996 and 2004. The surgery was a success and required no cancer treatments. I wasn’t as lucky when I was diagnosed with Ampulla of Vater Cancer in November of 2018. This is a rare form of cancer and I was advised to go to John Hopkins in Baltimore to have a Whipple surgery. After several months of chemo, I am now cancer free. My family and friends were always encouraging and hopeful during my battle with cancer. My getting healthy was always their goal.
My wife, Joyce, and son John took the reins and successfully ran our business during my recovery. Today, John has stepped into my shoes allowing me to enjoy my retirement. John and his wife Kelly are the chairs of this year’s Hope Gala and I am so over-whelmed to be chosen as an honoree. This is a wonderful organization dedicated to the fight against cancer.
Melanoma & Breast Cancer
I’m still having trouble wrapping my brain around my being an honoree at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Gala. My story is not very interesting or courageous.”
At 33, I was diagnosed with melanoma, which I’d never even heard of. Dr. Clark Julius removed a big chunk of my right shoul-der, leaving an impressive scar, which I’ll happily show you. It was tough explaining to my two-year old daughter why I couldn’t pick her up for a month, but we got through it, and I went on with my life.
Almost exactly five years ago, breast cancer was detected through a routine but overdue mammogram. Dr. Armand Wood, my primary care physician, would not let me leave his office without making the appointment. Later when he called to tell me I had cancer, I immediately defaulted to my crisis mode: make a plan; freak out later. If you’re going to be diagnosed with breast cancer, my diagnosis was about the best: Stage 1 and Stage 0. I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. I had reconstruction a year or so later. No chemo. No radiation. And no freaking out. I’ve got some impressive scars, which I will not show you, and I went on with my life.
I still don’t think my story is very interesting or courageous. The biggest take away from my experience with melanoma was “sunscreen and shade are your friends, and pale is beautiful.” My biggest take-away this time is simply “gratitude”: I’m grateful to Dr. Wood for making me get that life-saving mammogram. I’m grateful to Dr. John Bell and the staff at the UT Cancer Institute and to Dr. Stacy Stevenson and the staff at University Plastic Surgeons. I’m grateful to my husband, Bill, who handled drainage tube duty in his inimitable way by creating a spreadsheet and treating me like his very own weird science project.
Pediatric Metastatic Osteosarcoma
Corey Johnson, Jr.
In 2019 at the age of 12, I began having some pain in my hip area. My doctor informed us it was a result of becoming a “young man” and to take warmer showers and over-the-counter meds. However, after a family beach trip in October in which the pain became so bad that I could not walk, we returned to Knoxville and ended up going to the Emergency Room. On October 14, after having an Xray and my blood drawn, the ER doctor came into my room and said, “You have cancer, and we need to find out what kind and where its primary location is. An oncologist will be coming down to talk to you.”
It was 2-weeks later before we would learn that I had Metastatic Osteosarcoma. After a trip to Vanderbilt for a bone biopsy, the medical team found the cancer had gone from my right femur to two spots on both lungs. My treatment plan would be 29 weeks of chemo with a BIG surgery in the middle to remove the tumor. On October 29, my first surgery took place with the installation of a power port, followed by chemotherapy that same day. After several rounds of chemo and a P.E.T. scan, a surgery was scheduled to remove my right femur and replace with a titanium rod. On Jan 15, 2020, I had my big surgery, resulting in a full hip and knee replacement and five days at the hospital.
I would continue chemotherapy during the height of COVID with my last treatment in June 2020. Unfortunately, my scans would later show that month, I still had activity inside my lungs. Therefore, I underwent another major surgery at the University of Alabama Birmingham in September. The medical team there removed two spots, one on each lung, resulting in an ICU hospital stay. The surgery was very painful and far worse than my leg procedure.
Luckily, by Feb 2021, I received word I could return to school virtually with my sister. Although the past few years have presented a challenge, it has brought my family closer together and even more connected to our faith. I have received so much outreach from family and friends showing their love. It has been amazing to see. And although cancer has brought physical challenges enabling my ability to play soccer, I love the drums and play every Sunday at church. I also enjoy playing PS4 with my friends, allowing me to act somewhat like a kid. I refuse to let cancer stop me and plan to fulfill my dream of one day becoming a pilot in the United States Air Force!
ALK Lung Cancer
My name is Amanda Nerstad, and I am a 43-year-old active wife and mom. I was a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines for 21 years. My family and I moved back to my hometown of Knoxville in 2016. We spent the previous 12 years living in Chicago, but we felt a strong desire to raise our two girls, Isabella, 11, and Greta, 8, in East Tennessee.
After a lot of prayer, we felt God answered our prayers and provided my husband, Gary, with a job opportunity to move to Knoxville, which we enthusiastically accepted. Shortly after moving home, our world changed forever as I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. It was a complete shock! I never smoke and never thought I could get lung cancer. My surgeon told me to get my affairs together that I had 2 weeks-9months to live.
We found a great team of doctors at the University of Tennessee Cancer Center and Johns Hopkins. My two doctors communicate together to make sure I have the best care. Thanks to biomarker testing, we’ve discovered I have a genetic mutation called ALK positive. I take a daily targeted therapy pill to help keep my cancer at bay and it is working well!
Since diagnosed, I have become actively involved in the fight against lung cancer, informing communities that anyone can get lung cancer, not just smokers. I’m on the executive team of ALK Positive (a support group for unknown cause of lung cancer), this year, serving as the ALK Summit Chair. In addition, by the suggestion of my daughter, Isabella, in 2017, we’ve started an annual event called Lemonade for Lungs. The summer fundraiser benefits lung cancer research and includes sponsors, a deejay, bounce houses and more!
I know I’ll eventually gain resistance to my pills, but for now, I am winning! It’s important for to me to stay positive, to look to my faith and thank God for my blessings every day! I try to live each day with purpose and intent. We make some great family memories, enjoy life and try not to sweat the small stuff.
I don’t want cancer to define me, but it is a part of me. It’s important to me that Gary and I continue to go out on dates and out for a glass of wine, to enjoy time with our kids traveling and boating on the lake!
I am not giving up hope and faith for a cure and continue advocate and work for more lung cancer research and to make great memories with family! It is truly an honor to be an honoree this year at the Hope gala!