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SHE'S FAR AWAY, BUT CLOSE TO VFW

Members may not know cancer patient Nikki Bailey, but they know her dad helps everyone.

As a member and canteen manager at VFW Post 2473, John Smith is known for helping people down on their luck.

He does whatever is needed when the VFW hosts a benefit. Strangely enough, Smith knew a benefit was being planned this month, yet no one had asked for his help. He soon discovered why.

The benefit, scheduled for Sunday at the post, is for his daughter, Nikki Bailey, a cancer patient who lives in New Jersey.

"I wasn't supposed to know," said Smith, 63, of Clearwater. "When I found out what the Ladies Auxiliary had planned, I didn't know what to do. I was so grateful, and couldn't believe they'd be willing to help my daughter."

Mary Ann Wiltshire, the Ladies Auxiliary senior vice president, said members knew Smith disliked talking about his daughter's illness, but members wanted to help.

Smith says he cannot announce the upcoming day of music, food and fun over the intercom without tearing up. He never imagined his Nikki in need, but four years ago her life and his changed.

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Nikki Bailey used to enjoy taking her children to the beach and hopping on a boogie board, carefree and oblivious to the waves tossing her around. But that changed in 2005 when her lower back pain morphed into terminal cancer.

"A scan showed a mass," Bailey said. "They scheduled me for female surgery, opened me up, and found nothing. They said the tumor was gone. That was the end of it."

Only it wasn't.

Whenever Bailey tried to reach above her head, she felt a horrific pain. As a single mom raising two kids, she struggled to keep her hairdresser's job and to stay strong.

A year later, the pain had traveled to the middle of Bailey's back. A friend recommended a doctor two hours from Bailey's south New Jersey home. Her brother agreed to drive her. Something had to be wrong. She wasn't crazy. The pain was real.

A biopsy came back stage four cancer and a CAT scan revealed a tennis ball-sized tumor encapsulated in her tailbone.

"I was in shock," Bailey said. "The worst part was telling my family and seeing what it's done to them. The positives are realizing who and what's important in life."

Bailey, 38, remains optimistic. She spends the time she has left with those who mean the most to her: her children. Her parents. Her brothers. And her boyfriend, Brian McFadden, 43, who has helped shuttle kids to basketball and soccer practice.

Each moment is precious.

She still treks to the beach with daughter Alexis, 14, and son Corey, 16. They enjoy the beach, but neither she nor the children feel carefree. The kids caution Bailey, afraid waves may shatter her spine and confine her to a wheelchair or worse.

"On scans my spine looks like Swiss cheese, full of dark empty spots," Bailey said. "I'm thankful for the doctors who found my cancer, and for the treatments. Every month, I get a type of chemotherapy, a form of hormones to strengthen my bones. One shot and then an IV."

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Daily life is a struggle for Bailey, who lives with pain. She cannot work. She worries about bills and fears she will run out of money to fight the bone cancer that has spread to the base of her skull.

"I had four radiation treatments, which helped me feel better, good enough to sleep at night," Bailey said. "I don't want to be an invalid. If you allow this disease to consume you, I believe it will kill you. So I try to stay strong and thankful the cancer hasn't spread outside my spine. "

Bailey's also thankful for the VFW benefit in her honor.

The day will include live music, a buffet dinner, giveaways, auctions and raffles to raise money for Bailey.

"VFWs always help veterans and those in need," Wiltshire said. "We wanted to show John's daughter our love and support."

Members and others have contributed auction items. Entertainers like the Doo Wops and JD the Entertainer are donating their time.

"I can't believe the VFW members would help someone they don't even know." Bailey said, her voice cracking. "It's amazing what people do from the kindness of their hearts."

If you go

Benefit for Nikki Bailey

What: VFW Post 2473 Ladies Auxiliary Benefit for Nikki Bailey, the daughter of the post's canteen manager, John Smith. The event will include live music, auctions, giveaways, a 50-50 raffle, and buffet (for a donation).

When: 1 p.m. Sunday.

Where: VFW Post 2473, 1401 N Hercules Ave., Clearwater.

Who: Open to the public.

For more information: Call (727) 447-0922.

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