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Breast cancer survivor surprised by happy homecoming at Bucs game

TAMPA — Reina Campbell spent Sunday morning talking about her son.

She told the people around her dressed in pink that he was the reason she was there, the reason her chemotherapy hangover didn't seem so bad and the reason she was wearing a camouflage breast cancer T-shirt that said "Fighter."

During the second TV commercial break of the second period of the Buccaneers game Sunday, Campbell, 55, knew she'd be ushered from the suite at Raymond James Stadium and onto the deck of the Pirate Ship. She knew she'd be recognized for her fight with cancer, and that her eldest son, Capt. Joshua Gunderson with the U.S. Air Force, had sent her a video message from his base in Anchorage.

She knew she wished he could be there.

And then he was.

•••

Gunderson texted his mother earlier that morning, said he'd be watching the game from the Peanut Farm, a bar in Alaska they both liked, and that seemed close enough.

So when the time came, when the booming voice on the intercom called her name, she stepped onto the balcony, a camouflage hat covering her short and thinning hair.

She waved at the sea of clapping fans, then trained her eyes on the Jumbotron.

"Hi mom," smiled her son, snow falling behind him. "I wish I could be there for you today, but I'm proudly serving our country in Alaska. Keep fighting, mom, and go Bucs."

She beamed, then heard someone tell her to turn to her right.

"No way," she thought. "I'm watching my son."

Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and heard a familiar voice.

"Mama?"

•••

The scheming started in July, around the time that Florida Cancer Specialists began compiling a list of breast cancer patients to recognize at Sunday's Bucs game. They needed to have a military connection.

Reina Campbell would be perfect, her doctors thought.

She'd battled and beaten cancer once before, and was fighting it again. Her son, whom she'd told her doctors all about, flew jets for the Air Force. She deserved to be recognized, and so did he.

But he was all the way in Alaska.

"Our imaginations started to go wild," said Dr. Waide Weaver, a family friend and oncologist at Florida Cancer Specialists. They talked about flying Gunderson into Tampa, then having him pilot a jet during the pre-game flyover. But that got too complicated.

"We said, 'Let's not get greedy,' " Weaver said. "Let's just get him here."

So they planned the big surprise in secret, telling only a few family members and Campbell's oncologist, Dr. David Wright, that Gunderson was coming to town. He flew into Tampa on Friday and spent the weekend setting the stage.

He texted his mom about how cold it was in Anchorage. He told her how much he wished he could be there. He wished her luck early Sunday morning as he was, wink, wink, on his way to work.

She believed him.

They hadn't seen each other since July, when Campbell flew to Alaska for Gunderson's 29th birthday. A single mom until she remarried five years ago, Campbell said her kids kept her going.

"We are the three musketeers," she said. "Your body wears out, it does. . . . But you fight for your children. That is what we do."

She found the lump in 2006. Doctors said it was breast cancer. Campbell underwent chemotherapy, then a double mastectomy, then radiation. Within two months of her diagnosis, three other family members were diagnosed with cancer, including her father. It was in his lungs.

He died nine months later.

Through it all, Gunderson was traveling across the world, to Colorado, Spain, Texas, Oregon and Japan before settling in Alaska. Being away from family, especially from his mom, he said, has been the hardest part.

So on Sunday, as Bucs staffers shuffled him from the VIP room to the first aid station to the pirate ship, as people asked him questions and took his picture, Gunderson wasn't the least bit unnerved.

"I'm just really excited to see my mom," he said.

•••

"Oh," Campbell cried out as she turned to her right. "My son!"

She hugged him and kissed him and cupped his face. She cried.

In the stands, Gunderson's younger brother was just as surprised. Those who'd been keeping the secret for months felt relieved.

"Everyone knew but me!" Campbell said.

The tears kept flowing.

They headed back to the suite, where Gunderson told his mom that he was proud of her for fighting.

"Honey," she said. "I do it for you and your brother. Everything I do is for you."

Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446.

Breast cancer survivor surprised by happy homecoming at Bucs game 10/11/15 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2015 10:02pm]
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