Survivors share stories of strength

By Jessi Stone, Assistant editor | May 01, 2014

More than 100 cancer survivors and their caregivers gathered together at Cornerstone Fellowship Church on Tuesday, April 29, to share a meal as well as their stories of hope.

Each year, Cornerstone Fellowship offers to host the West Haywood Relay for Life survivor dinner, and its members prepare and serve the guests in attendance. Not only did they everyone enjoy a delicious meal, but many survivors went home with door prizes donated by the more than 20 West Haywood Relay for Life teams.

Faith Under Fire, a group of young Christian singers, provided the entertainment while Karen Rigdon was the keynote speaker.

Rigdon, a math teacher at Waynesville Middle School for about 15 years, shared her story about mouth cancer with the audience. After receiving her diagnosis in 2012, she said one of the hardest things for her was having to rely more on her family and friends for support.

"I pride myself on being independent and doing it all by myself so having to rely on my sons was hard on me," Rigdon said. "But having a support system is everything and that is what Relay for Life is about — having a family and support system."

While the journey to recovery has been long and difficult for Rigdon, she approaches her story with humor. Since she was diagnosed with alopecia, a hair-loss condition, when she was a child, she said she didn't have to worry about losing her hair during chemo treatment.

"I deal with it with humor. I learned that at an early age," she said.

Rigdon was 46 and in great health when she went to the doctor to ask about a blister in her mouth. She was first misdiagnosed but her conscience told her to get a second opinion. She said she wasn't surprised when the blister in her mouth turned out to be cancerous — she knew what it was even before the biopsy came back.

"But I never questioned why it happened to me. Everything comes together in God's plan for a reason," Rigdon said.

Rigdon had the cancer removed, which meant about one-third of her tongue was removed. She had to relearn how to speak and couldn't eat for months while she recovered. She joked that the three things she enjoys the most — eating, talking and being in the sun — were all taken away from her when she got cancer.

The cancer had spread to her nerves and she had to undergo radiation and chemotherapy. Her doctor told Rigdon how lucky she was because 10 years ago the reconstructive surgery on her mouth probably wouldn't have been possible.

That is why cancer research, which is heavily funded by American Cancer Society through the Relay for Life events, is so important to cancer patients.

"So many people in the community stepped up to help me — I was overwhelmed," she said. "It has been an uplifting experience sharing my personal story and you all have that. We don't want to forget that ever. Our voices need to be heard."

Rigdon is leading the Waynesville Middle School Relay for Life team and they have already raised more than $2,000 on their way to their $4,000 goal before the May 9 event at the Waynesville Recreation Center.

To donate to Relay for Life of West Haywood, visit