Lauren Heaney’s daughter Emilia was only 6 months old when she as told she had lymphoma.
Heaney never felt sorry for herself. She had a single goal in mind from the minute she was diagnosed: Survive.
“It was never, ‘I hope I’m going to beat this.’ It was always ‘I’ve got to fight harder’,” said Heaney, a first-grade teacher in Wayne. Heaney was the emcee of the fourth annual Celebrating Life and Liberty gathering.
More than 3,000 attended the event Sunday at Liberty State Park in Jersey City. The John Theurer Cancer Center (JTCC) at Hackensack University Medical Center sponsored the event.
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and a pancreatic cancer survivor, performed on stage with an orchestra and back-up singers. She sang Gospel songs and “Think,” one of her most famous hits.
Attendees met with local and statewide cancer support and recovery organizations, including Gilda’s Club of Northern New Jersey, Guardians of the Ribbon, and stupidcancer.org, a website dedicated to helping young adults who have been diagnosed with cancer.
“When you’re a teenager and in your 20s and 30s, it’s a series of firsts. Your life is just starting and a lot of people start families and their careers then,” said Tara Crawley, one of the leaders with the organization’s Bergen County chapter. “You’re not supposed to be facing something like cancer when you’re that young. It can be very disruptive to getting that all going.”
Those at the event said the diagnosis changed their lives, and their family’s lives, forever.
“Without question it does,” Heaney’s husband, Jeff, said. “It’s all in how you react to it. You have two options: do nothing and accept it or you can put your blinders on and battle against it.”
That fight is one that has become more and more prevalent, medical professionals at the event said, and that can be a good thing.
“There is a one out of three chance of someone from the United States being diagnosed with cancer,” said Dr. Andre Goy, chairman of the JTCC. “But there has clearly been a shift in how we treat all kinds of cancers now than there was 20 years ago.”
North Jersey residents celebrated being cancer free by singing songs and poems they wrote on stage.
“We’re here to enjoy life,” said Astrid DeRosa, a two-time breast cancer survivor from Hasbrouck Heights. “We need to do that and enjoy each other every day that we have.”