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LUMBERTON — A sheriff’s car decked out in pink decals could be seen Thursday parked at the Gibson Cancer Center, as part of an effort to encourage early detection and testing for cancer on the first day of breast cancer awareness month.

The cause hits home for Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins.

“This month is especially important to me as my mother was affected by breast cancer twice before her passing in 2015,” Wilkins said. “Early recognition and detection is a key component to effective treatment. Hopefully by simply displaying this car across our county, it will instill the need of being tested, as breast cancer is by far the most common cancer amongst women.”

The car has a pink breast cancer ribbon on its hood and a purple butterfly on the rear driver’s side door, among other decals.

“The color purple is representative of many things to include multiple other cancers,” Wilkins said. “It also is a display of faith in the healing process for recovering cancer patients.”

The vehicle could be seen at the Cancer Center, located at 1200 Pine Run Road, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., before being moved to Southeastern Regional Medical Center for the virtual lighting of a pink ribbon atop the hospital at 7:15 p.m.

“Breast cancer is prevalent in our community. Southeastern Health has made awareness and early detection a focal point for all of our surrounding communities, and we are seeing greater community involvement every year,” said Lori Dove, Southeastern Heath vice president and chief administrative officer.

“Having the sheriff and his department take an active interest in the health of our communities through such a great awareness tool demonstrates the power of partnerships at all levels,” she added.

The Sheriff’s Office’s partnership with Southeastern Health helps serve county residents through knowledge and raising awareness, she said.

“October is all about bringing awareness of the disease and emphasizing how important early detection is for a greater outcome, a better, healthier life, and more time with the people you love the most,” Dove said.

The hospital system has worked to make early detection tools like 3D mammography and breast MRIs more available, she said. Southeastern Health also is able to provide screening exams to uninsured and under-insured residents through a grant program.

“Southeastern Health’s goal is to drive down the mortality rate of breast cancer through early detection,” she said. “We have already been successful in increasing the number of women diagnosed at Stage Zero, when breast cancer is most easily treated. However, we still have women who do not access any type of screening, either self-exam or mammogram, and they are diagnosed at Stage 3 and Stage 4.”

Clinical Research Nurse Coordinator Sharon Smith is better able to identify patients after a mammogram six years ago showed spots on one of her breasts. Smith had to return for a biopsy. A checkup six months later showed another area.

Fortunately, both biopsies were not cancerous, but the process was life-changing, she said.

“It gave me more empathy towards my patients that’s going though cancer treatment,” she said.

“It was a very dark, scary moment for me,” she added.

Smith has worked at the center for 18 years because there, she feels she can make a difference through helping administer clinical research trials to patients.

“The patients are what makes the oncology worth working in,” she said.

“To me, when I leave here at the end of the day I really feel like I’ve helped somebody.”

Patients often become like family members as they go through treatment, she said.

“Our patients are some of the most appreciative patients I’ve worked with…,” Smith said.

And as they hope for healing, the medical workers share in the journey with them.

“We have just as much hope as they do in seeing them through this tragedy that they have had to incur,” Smith said.

Angie Sessoms shares in the task of supporting patients. She too has felt the gravity of cancer’s effects.

Sessoms, who works in Financial Navigation at the Cancer Center, lost both parents to cancer. Her mother was diagnosed with non-small-cell carcinoma, and her father with colon cancer.

Both were treated at the center, and Sessoms uses her experience each day to provide support to patients.

“Never in a million years would I have ever thought I would be working at a cancer place,” Sessoms said Thursday. “It is the most rewarding job you can ever ever have in your life spiritually, mentally.”

She shares laughter, tears and prayers with patients. Post-it notes with patient names are placed on the wall of her office as a reminder for her to keep the faith and keep praying for their healing.

Sessoms especially enjoys sharing victories with patients, by standing by as they ring one of two bells at the center in celebration of completing final chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

“That’s an awesome thing when you can cheer the patients on,” she said.

Though COVID-19 has limited or restricted many activities, like group painting, crafts, activities and visits, the hospital system is still offering activities online.

“While we will not be able to come together as a community this year, we are offering many learning opportunities virtually,” Dove said.

Southeastern Health also is offering a walk-in breast cancer exam and mammography screening at Southeastern Radiology Associates, located at 209 W. 27th St., on Oct. 24 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. All social distancing and cleaning protocols will be followed.

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