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Virginia lawmakers unite to fight cancer: 'Don't be an ostrich'

Posted at 6:48 PM, Jan 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-20 18:48:32-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers gathered in the Pocahontas Building in Richmond on Friday to discuss Virginia's efforts in the fight against cancer and to pay tribute to two former colleagues who died.

"I have tracked and watched the advancement that's occurred, so much in the last few years," said co-chair of the Virginia Cancer Caucus, which hosted the gathering, Sen. Frank Ruff (R - 16th). "You seem to be turning the corner. We're never going to get to exactly where we want to be, but we keep trying."

Ruff said it was probably the largest turnout of lawmakers he had seen at the caucus as one after another shared their personal connections to cancer, whether it was a mother, father, brother, or daughter who had or died from it.

"My father had brain cancer, actually. He survived. He's doing amazing. So, it was early detection," said Del. Charniele Herring (D - 46th). "What's important is the work that everyone in here is doing raising awareness."

"My brother dealt with it at age 16 when we were children. He's still with us today with through several, several surgeries," said Del. Scott Wyatt (R - 97th).

"I always want to come and thank people for being involved and concerned and participating in saving lives," said Del. Kathleen Murphy (D - 34th). "We lost our daughter last year to cancer."

"All of us have been touched by this terrible disease and our families and our friends," said Speaker Todd Gilbert (R - 15th). "It doesn't let anybody off that hook."

Along with sharing personal stories, lawmakers heard from advocates and lobbyists urging them to support several cancer-related bills submitted this session.

Several presentations were also made by those leading the fight on the medical side, including Dr. Robert Winn with the VCU Massey Cancer Center and said Virginia has made big strides since he came to the facility in 2020.

"I had looked around and recognized that there were no comprehensive cancer centers in the state of Virginia. When you looked at North Carolina there were three, there were two in Maryland, even in Tennessee there were two," Winn said, who added there are now two in Virginia -- his and UVA's. "Us coming together, if we can play as one team to have one fight, we will reduce the burden of cancer in this Commonwealth."

Winn said that while you might think Virginia has good statistics when it comes to cancer, that is not the case.

"When you look at lung, breast, prostate, and when you actually include colorectal in that we're not doing so well. In fact, the reality is, we still are in the top three hotspots in the country, not just in the Commonwealth, in the country from poor outcomes from colorectal cancer and poor outcomes, particularly from prostate cancer," said Winn.

Along with the presentations, the caucus also honored the widows of two former colleagues who died because of cancer in the past two months.

Del. Ronnie Campbell (R - 24th) died of mesothelioma in December. His wife, Ellen, won a special election to fill his seat.

"There is no cure. And that's something when you hear those words, you can't really prepare yourself for that. We've had we had incredible care, we had the latest treatments, everything that was available, but unfortunately was just not enough and he lost his fight," said Campbell. "I can't thank you all, especially my colleagues that are here for the love and the support that you've given me. I was just telling someone the other day it's like, I have one foot in the valley and one on the mountain, but you've really helped me and it's been a blessing."

Rep. Donald McEachin, who previously served in the General Assembly, died of complications from his treatment of colorectal cancer in November.

"Thanks to the support of lots of friends and family and colleagues I am doing as well as can be expected," said his wife, Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin. "I obviously miss Donald terribly and think about him every day, but I'm really encouraged and amazed by all the kind words and actions that the community has made on his behalf."

When Dr. Winn addressed the group, he turned to McEachin and promised her that the field would focus on the after-effects experienced by her husband.

"We are now not only looking at the new drugs that can cure but understanding your story, understanding his fight. We also need to have research and figure out how we can have less toxicity in the things we use. How we can actually make sure that you're not only surviving this thing, but you're thriving," said Winn. "Hopefully the story ten years from now will be, 'Yes, I had that cancer. Not only did I survive it, but all that other stuff -- the dry mouth, numbness in my fingers, I can't do this. I can't eat right.' Hopefully ten years from now, we'll be saying we worked equally as hard in the new cure -- we work equally as hard and making sure that we have the molecules and precision medicine for the intervention of people who's surviving cancer. That's a promise."

"It's heartwarming, it's actually exciting to hear all of the ways in which the Commonwealth and the various medical institutions and nonprofits and groups are all working with the same goal of eradicating cancer. And also bringing out to the community the need for testing, the need for going to your doctor's appointments, the need for supporting family members as they are supporting the person who has cancer," said McEachin. "The community is here to support you and there are a number of groups and agencies and resources available. So, please go out, get tested. Go to your annual doctor's visits, find out information. Don't bury your head in the sand. Don't be an ostrich. Be an eagle and attack the problem and fly above it."

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