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Friends for life ― and beyond

Promise -

Strong bond endures in legacy of caring

By Dawn Dorsey

Lisa Spain, executive director 
of Rexanna’s Foundation for 
Fighting Lung Cancer 
Photo by John Everett

Lisa Spain and Rexanna Hawkins were the closest of friends, sharing a love of travel, sports, theater – and the occasional glass of a good red wine.

Although Hawkins died in 2006 at the age of 49, two months after she was diagnosed with lung cancer, the spirit of their friendship and Hawkins’ courage lives on through Rexanna’s Foundation for Fighting Lung Cancer, which Spain established to honor her friend.

Spain, executive director, uses her considerable energy, fueled by the memory of Hawkins, to lead a host of committed volunteers through an ambitious schedule of fundraising events. The group, which includes Hawkins’ family and friends, has given MD Anderson more than $350,000 to support lung cancer research and increase awareness of the disease. It also rewards college scholarships to children whose lives have been touched by cancer.

Journey began with research

Spain and Hawkins met in 1997, when both worked as girls’ athletic coordinators in a school district west of Austin. They quickly clicked, and by the time Spain and her husband moved to Houston in 2000, the two women had formed a close bond.

Hawkins had never smoked and was in excellent health, so it was a shock when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Spain quit her job to support Hawkins during her treatment at MD Anderson. Their first step was to research lung cancer.

“The information was limited and all ‘doom and gloom’,” Spain says.

A last wish, a new beginning

Spain accompanied Hawkins on almost every appointment at MD Anderson, and what she saw made a big impression.

“We were impressed by the compassion and empathy of everyone there,” Spain says. “There’s such a passion for making a difference and helping others. We were grateful for the attention to detail that really helps guide you through the process.”

A few hours before Hawkins died, she and Spain had one last heart-to-heart.

“Rexanna wanted me to do something for lung cancer research,” Spain says. “We both felt strongly that we wanted to help people who aren’t as fortunate as we were to have a strong support network, and we agreed it was important to educate people about lung cancer and give back to MD Anderson.”

A firm foundation

Although she didn’t have a clue where to start, Spain worked with MD Anderson’s Development Office and Daniel Karp, M.D., a professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Thoracic/Head & Neck Medical Oncology, to form a foundation to accomplish their goals. Karp and Edward Kim, M.D., chief of Head and Neck Medical Oncology, are the foundation’s medical advisers.

While the foundation’s main mission is to raise funds to help promote lung cancer research, educating young people about the dangers of tobacco use is important as well. T.E.A.M. (Tobacco Education Awareness Matters), which honors Hawkins’ desire to give back to students, is a community service campaign that involves teens in spreading the word about the dangers of tobacco.

The Rexanna Foundation’s next annual fundraising event, Lone Star Huddle Up, an evening of food, fun and music in the Texas Hill Country, is scheduled Nov. 17. Other ongoing fundraising projects include a growing slate of 5K runs (four scheduled for spring 2012) and Cookies for a Cure, a bake sale program.

A promise kept

Spain thinks her friend would be amazed at what the foundation has been able to accomplish so far.

“Rexanna would be shocked, just blown away,” Spain says. “She had the most amazing heart and was so giving, and she would be really impressed.

“She would probably say, ‘You know, all this deserves a glass of a great red wine.’”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center