When Johnny Hayes passed away following a three-year bout with oral cancer on November 18, 2011, he left behind his wife Viola and his grown daughters Pamela, Darlene and Tiffany. These four most important women in his life decided that they wanted to do something to honor Johnny, and even though he is the one now residing in heaven, they dubbed themselves “Johnny’s Angels.”
Pamela, the eldest daughter, wanted to learn more about the disease that had claimed her father’s life, and her curiosity soon took her to the Oral Cancer Foundation’s website. There she learned, among other things, that many people across the country were organizing oral cancer walks to commemorate Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April. She discussed this with the other Angels, and even though that was only a few months away, they decided that they would organize a walk in their hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut on April 21.
Other members of the Hayes family, including Johnny’s grandchildren, pitched in to help with the planning. A local company called The Printing Press donated flyers to help promote the event, as well as a bookmark with Johnny’s photograph and personalized certificates to be given to each participant in the event.
The 2-mile walk took place in the same park where Johnny used to walk every day. Despite only a few months of planning, a total of 67 people attended the event and raised over $1,000 for the Oral Cancer Foundation.
“We are definitely doing this again next year,” said Pamela, “and with much more time to plan, we know we’ll be able to attract a lot more people and raise a lot more money for the Foundation.” One thing Pamela and her cohorts are committed to doing at next year’s event is offering free oral cancer screenings to all attendees.
“My father was a great husband, father and grandfather, and he always had a big smile on his face,” said Pamela. It seems likely that on April 21, 2012, his smile was even bigger than usual.
“Lisa’s Voice” Rings Clear in Montana
Columbia Falls, Montana, is a picturesque, tight-knit town at the base of Glacier National Park. With a population of roughly 2,500, any residents with a larger-than-life personality are seemingly know by everyone in town. Lisa Petersen was one of those larger-than-life personalities.
Sadly, Lisa died in September, two years after being diagnosed with oral cancer. Her treatment had included several surgeries, one of which removed her tongue and, with it, her voice. But while her treatment was ultimately unable to save Lisa, the memories that Lisa’s friends have of her will keep her voice alive indefinitely. One of those friends is Janis Johnson, who decided that something had to be done to honor Lisa’s memory. “Lisa was one of a kind,” said Janis. “She was very headstrong and opinionated, but she’d do anything for you. She was a car racing fan and loved to hunt, but she also loved animals, especially her one-eyed cat and three-legged. She was a real piece of work and just a joy to be around.”
Prior to developing cancer, Lisa worked in mental healthcare. Several years ago she moved from Columbia Falls to Missoula, but she returned home to be near her parents after her only sibling died in a car accident. Shortly after moving pack, she was diagnosed with oral cancer.
When Janis decided to honor Lisa’s memory, she quickly decided two things. First, she decided the event would not be a walk. “It seems that almost every fundraiser you see is some sort of a walk,” said Janis. “Lisa was a unique individual, so I wanted to do something different. Also, you never know what kind of weather you’ll get around here in April, so I thought we should hold our event indoors.” Second, she decided that the event would be called “Lisa’s Voice.” As Janis said, “Lisa was never afraid to speak out, and you never knew what was going to come out of her mouth. But while cancer might have robbed her of her ability to speak, she still always found a way to be heard. It’s my hope that this event will keep her voice, and her memory, alive for many years to come.”
Based on the inaugural version of this event, held on April 21, it appears that Janis stands a good chance of getting her wish. It was held at the Montana State Veterans Home, where Janis is employed helping residents with their dietary needs. The superintendent of the Veterans Home is particularly sensitive to the cause of early detection of oral cancer, having recently lost an aunt to the disease and having another employee currently being treated for the disease. In addition to providing the event’s venue, he also arranged to have the Veteran’s Home food service donate $1,000 worth of food, and to have local VFW members man the grills.
The centerpiece of the event was a booth staffed by members of the Flathead County Health Department. Janis had held four meetings with department administrators in what was ultimately a successful effort to convince them that the community needed to be educated about the threat posed by oral cancer, particularly that caused by the sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).
The event was kicked off in dramatic fashion by having a local roller derby team skate through the Veterans Home. The team also handled valet duties as attendees arrived in their vehicles.
Janis was also able to gain the cooperation of the local dental community, as three general practitioners and one oral surgeon agreed to give oral cancer screenings to almost 100 event attendees. In addition, several local businesses and a local artist donated items for raffle prizes and a silent auction. One of the most popular prizes was Lisa’s hunting rifle.
Janis lined up an impressive list of speakers for the event, including:
April Coen, one of Lisa’s closest friends.
Michelle Koller, whose 16-year-old daughter Taylor Peterson is currently being treated for oral cancer in Seattle.
Julianne Hinchey, a local attorney and oral cancer patient who spoke on how early detection saved her life.
Michele Robison, a brain cancer survivor who emceed the event.
In addition, representatives of the Montana Tobacco Quit Program were there to answer questions about the connection between oral cancer and tobacco usage.
Remarkably, almost 500 people between the ages of 5 and 90 attended the event, thanks in large part to Janis’ efforts to generate as much pre-event publicity as possible. She was able to secure free advertising support from the Fox TV station in nearby Missoula and the Daily Interlake newspaper. She also got radio stations KOFI and KGEZ to air interviews with her leading up to the event, and she spoke to about 70 members of the local Rotary Club to drum up additional interest.
The event raised a total of about $8,000 for the Oral Cancer Foundation, which is nothing short of remarkable given the small population base in Flathead County. Still, less than three weeks after the inaugural “Lisa’s Voice,” Janis is already well on her way to ensuring that next year’s results will be even more successful. How? By having two events two weeks apart—one in Missoula, where Lisa once lived, and the other in Kalispell. Both cities offer much larger population bases than Columbia Falls. In Missoula, Janis will organize the event in conjunction with the local Fox TV station. In both cities, she already has lined up several dental practices that have agreed to offer free screenings, as well as three oral cancer patients from the Flathead Valley who want to share their stories. She has also already arranged for several raffle and auction prizes, including a mammogram, a radiology reading and a surgery to be donated by a local hospital, and a 12-piece set of antique dishes donated by a local woman. And, last but not least, she has persuaded the governor of Montana to attend the event.
Lisa Petersen was certainly a larger-than-life character, but it clear that Janis Johnson is a very special person in her own right. Lisa might have lost her battle with cancer, but thanks to the efforts and determination of friends like Janis, her voice will be heard forever.