After losing both parents five weeks apart to cancer in 2008, Cheryl Altman wanted to do something to honor them while giving back to the community.
Since she and her mother always loved to dance, Altman organized Dancers 4 Cancer, which raises money for the Florida Cancer Foundation. The third edition of the festive fundraiser is scheduled Friday.
In February 2008, Altman's father, Charlie, was diagnosed with lung cancer and told that he had two to eight weeks to live. His wife, Ethel, who had ovarian cancer, died on Sept. 8 that year — on the couple's 63rd wedding anniversary. Five weeks later, on Oct. 17, Charlie died.
"Dad was supposed to go first," said Altman, "but I swear, as attached as he was to her, he made sure he waited until she was gone. They were so close, it wouldn't have surprised us for them to hold hands and go together."
Altman soon learned about the Florida Cancer Foundation and its efforts to help people affected by cancer in Pinellas County.
With the help of friends Carol Hasbrouck and K.C. Jones, Altman worked to get Dancers 4 Cancer off and running.
"I do this because it's important to Cheryl and we're good friends and because I know that the money stays in our local community and goes directly to patients for their everyday needs," said Hasbrouck.
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In its first year, the event sold out the Gulfport Casino. Last year's sock hop at the Coliseum drew about 450 people. Each year, the group raised around $10,000. For this year's Mardi Gras theme, they hope to bring in 700 people and raise $25,000.
Rick Shonter started the Florida Cancer Foundation, formerly the Gulfcoast Oncology Foundation, with Dr. Jeffery Paonessa after he was treated by the doctor for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2004. Shonter says more than $3 million has been given to 650 cancer patients in the past four years. The foundation helps qualified patients in Pinellas County who are diagnosed with cancer and going through treatments, he said.
Jane Morse-Swett has been the director of the foundation since its inception in 2006. The funds raised assist with paying for nonmedical needs including rent, mortgage, utility bills, auto repair and insurance, etc. In 2010, the foundation doled out more than $500,000.
Morse-Swett sees firsthand, on a regular basis, how cancer can devastate lives and wipe people out financially.
"I've seen an awful lot of folks come in here who have been working their whole life, who are ready to enjoy their retirement, or enjoy their life regardless, and the rug is swept out from underneath them."
The foundation holds golf tournaments, galas and fashion shows and is always looking for new ways to raise money.
Some local businesses are working with the foundation to offer car repair and cleaning services or to volunteer to drive patients to their appointments.
"I can't say enough good things about Pinellas County donors, because they've made it possible for so many of their neighbors, family and friends to get through this journey," said Morse-Swett.