With more than $760 million in philanthropy already raised from volunteers and corporate supporters, including more than 160 gifts of $1 million and more, MD Anderson officially launched Making Cancer History®: The Campaign to Transform Cancer Care at a dinner Feb. 18 at the Hilton Americas-Houston.
Billed as “An Evening of Celebration” and later described as “a life-altering experience” by those whose hearts it touched, the evening celebrated cancer survivors and honored the memory of those who have succumbed to the disease. More than 600 MD Anderson supporters filled the hotel’s Ballroom of the Americas, draped in white chiffon to create a circular space symbolizing the circle of life. Former Miss America Phyllis George led the program, graciously stepping in on two weeks’ notice for CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta. Gupta was slated to serve as master of ceremonies but canceled due to his participation in Haiti earthquake relief efforts.
President George H.W. and Barbara Bush greeted attendees via a video message, declaring their role as campaign honorary chairs a “privilege” and describing MD Anderson as “an incredibly special place.”
After the Houston Five Tenors performed “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by the St. Thomas’ Episcopal School Pipe Band, a moment of silence paid tribute to all who have lost their lives to cancer.
Memorial Drive Presbyterian senior pastor Rev. Dave Peterson delivered the invocation after sharing the story of his daughter’s breast cancer diagnosis a week after her wedding and her decision to be treated at MD Anderson. She and her husband rose to enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Board of Visitors chair Nancy B. Loeffler of San Antonio welcomed board and Advance Team members. Campaign chair Harry J. Longwell encouraged guests to spread the word about the need for philanthropic funding for cancer research programs.
Jeff Wigbels, a nonsmoking athlete from Atlanta who learned he had Stage IV metastatic lung cancer the day before his son was born, gave a moving account of his experience at MD Anderson and his efforts to raise funds for lung cancer research.
Soprano Barbara Padilla, of Guadalajara, Mexico, “America’s Got Talent” runner-up and a lymphoma survivor who now calls Houston home, entertained with selections by Puccini, Verdi and Schubert. As she sang the last strains of “Ave Maria,” eight patients took their places on miniature stages around the room’s perimeter. In a moving finale, the spotlight focused on survivors Jason Connelly, Janice Duplessis, Victoria Johnson, Nadia Jones, Jaime Rodriguez, Nikita Robinson, Kay Rogers and Kenneth Woo. One by one, they shared personal perspectives on the phrase “Making Cancer History,” striking out the word “cancer” with an animated red flourish on the mounted screens behind them. The tribute came full circle as Padilla said, “Thank you, MD Anderson, for ‘Making Cancer History’,” and gave a closing rendition of “The Prayer” with Ken Gayle, one of the five tenors who performed earlier in the evening.
“I’m not usually speechless,” said Mendelsohn as he returned to the stage to conclude the evening. “On behalf of everyone that’s a patient at MD Anderson, everyone who works at MD Anderson and everyone who’s a friend of MD Anderson, thank you to these incredible survivors who’ve inspired us tonight.”