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Cancer survivors celebrate life

Participant signs a scroll.
Brian Miller signs a Festival of Life scroll to be displayed in the lobby of the USC Norris Cancer Hospital. (Photo/Lisa Brook)

When Ali Djowharzadeh was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, three surgeons told him there was nothing they could do, advising him to get his affairs in order because the best he could expect was four more months on this planet. That was seven years ago.

Thanks to a fourth opinion and cutting-edge treatments at the USC Norris Cancer Hospital, Djowharzadeh was among 600 cancer survivors celebrating the 22nd Annual Festival of Life on June 2 in honor of National Cancer Survivors Day.

Invited to speak before the crowd on the Health Sciences Campus, Djowharzadeh, now cancer-free, shared what he learned from his battle and how he took the “Fight On” Trojan mantra to heart.

“We must celebrate and live in the present moment,” he said. “We must stand up and fight for our lives.”

Djowharzadeh’s wife, Raz, was there to celebrate with her husband.

“It’s a reminder for us of what we’ve gone through and to be thankful for him being alive today,” she said. “We had a great team of doctors who are the best in the country, and we’re thankful for having a facility where we were able to get everything done in one place. That was crucial to his treatment.”

Naomi Morales, who was admitted to Norris Cancer Hospital with stage-four ovarian cancer seven years ago and now serves there as a volunteer, was asked to share her inspirational story as well.

“I asked God to please allow me more time so I could give back to this hospital that gave me so much,” Morales said. “We all have a purpose here on Earth, just believe. The sun will always rise again. It did for me.”

Attendees also heard from Annette Sy, associate administrator and interim chief nursing officer at the Keck Medical Center of USC, on the challenges and rewards of oncology nursing.

Providing the physician’s perspective was USC urologist Matthew Dunn, who diagnosed his own father with prostate cancer four years ago and was part of the team at the cancer hospital that got him cancer-free. He said he is inspired by the special relationship he is able to forge with each and every patient, and would never want to be part of a patient mill, which he believes many hospitals are becoming as they base their success on the number of people they treat.

For the past 10 years, the Festival of Life has been organized by Alicia Syres, director of volunteer services at the cancer hospital. She said it’s gratifying to see more people coming back each year because more people are surviving. She called the event an example of how the staff works hard to cultivate a sense of family for patients.

“It’s fun to watch people reconnect with the staff who are here,” Syres said. “It’s like coming home, coming to see old friends.”

Former Today Show medical expert Art Ulene, a board member of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, returned to emcee the festival.

A cancer survivor himself, Ulene has been part of the event from the beginning. He noted that today there’s more reason to rejoice now that cancer, for many people, is not the death sentence it was 20 years ago.

“We celebrate each year to acknowledge the people who made this possible, to acknowledge our own strengths, and to acknowledge and express gratitude to the people who supported us through this,” Ulene explained. “But we celebrate also to let those who come later know that there is life after cancer, meaningful, productive life.”

Cancer survivors celebrate life

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