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Inaugural event held at TPC fetes area oncologists and raises funds for the American Cancer Society

‘Imagine ... The Beautiful Life’

Posted: August 5, 2009 9:30 p.m.
Updated: August 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Dr. John Barstis, left, Dr. Alexander Black and Dr. Shamel Sanani mingle with guests during the gala's cocktail reception. Barstis engages in conversation with Sanani. The medical trio were honored during the event to benefit the American Cancer Society.

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High spirits and strong hopes were shared Sunday when more than 170 guests gathered for the American Cancer Society Santa Clarita Valley Unit's inaugural tribute gala, "Imagine ... La Bella Vida."

The gala stayed true to it's theme, "the beautiful life," as it was held amidst the scenic backdrop of Valencia's Oaks Grille at the Tournament Players Club.

The summer evening affair was organized to honor three outstanding doctors who specialize cancer treatment and have helped countless Santa Clarita Valley patients and their families.

Alexander Black, M.D. and John Barstis, M.D. of the University of California, Los Angeles Cancer Center and Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and Shamel Sanani, M.D. of the North Valley Hematology/Oncology Group, received both the American Cancer Society's Legacy of Hope Award and the Antonovich Award.

The awards were given for the doctors' dedication and passion to finding a cure for cancer and for being active advocates in the fight against the disease.

Exhibiting professional excellence in the care and treatment of patients affected by cancer, the honored oncologists have seen many SCV residents through battles with cancer.

"It is a great honor to be able to recognize these professionals, who give the highest standard of care in their field," said Candy Spahr, ACS SCV Leadership Council president, who co-chaired the event with Donna Nuzzi.

"Their leadership and support of the American Cancer Society continues to make a positive impact on the lives of so many. They are really working to make the world a better place," said Nuzzi.

To kick off the evening VIP guests were serenaded by flamenco guitarist Michael Lyn during the pre-event reception.

Guests of the gala mingled over cocktails as the afternoon sun set, casting a golden glow over an array of silent auction items on display. Among the sought after items were domestic first-class airplane tickets, golf foursome packages, a day of sailing on Ventura Harbor and a week long stay at a cozy cabin in Big Bear.

"It's great to be here for so many reasons," said Debra Blemker, 55, who has been under the care of Sanani since she was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer five years ago.

"It was grueling at first, but my doctor helped me find the right attitude," she said.

Through a grim diagnosis, Sanani helped Blemker find strength and hope, as she continued to fight her disease into recovery.

"I am here today with a new vision for life," said Blemker. "Everything is brighter. My confidence and joy is so much greater and I thank Dr. Sanani for helping me get where I am now."

Lynn Oliver was another cancer survivor grateful to be present to honor the work of her oncologist.

"My doctor is so much more than just a physician to me," said Oliver, 66, a stage-three breast cancer survivor and patient of Dr. Barstis for the past 20 years. "He has been my therapist, pastor and friend. I always feel taken care of to the depths of my soul."

Oliver joined fellow beneficiaries in honoring the work of all three doctors, who received their awards individually, during the dinner reception in the spacious banquet room.

Guests savored a three-course feast of Italian cuisine as music from the Phil Parlapiano Trio filled the room.

Words of hope and courage were given as each doctor spoke about their mission to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families.

"I love all of my patients," said Sanani, director of the medical oncology department at Providence Holy Cross. "I am honored to be here, but even more so to be honoring those who keep up their fight for life."

"These doctors exemplify what it means to form a partnership with their patients," said Spahr. "They work actively with each individual to develop an effective treatment plan that works for them."

Heather Warrick is a patient who knows how important it can be to have the right doctor.

Warrick was 24 when she was first diagnosed with the early stages of breast cancer. Since the disease first reoccurred in 1994, Warrick has had seven subsequent reoccurrences of cancer, which spread to her spine, femurs, lymph nodes and lungs, as well as four regions in the brain and the back of her eye.

For the past 15 years, Warrick has valued the second opinion of Black, who continues to work closely with her on finding new treatments and medications.

Warrick is a 10-time recurrent cancer survivor, but continues to feel positive about finding a cure and being alive to see it happen.

"Black always tells me, ‘Whatever you need, you can always come to me,'" said Warrick. "I believe him when he says this because he really is always there. He is a huge, valuable part of my survivorship."

Warrick was asked to speak to the room about her battles with cancer and encourage supporters to help the society's cause to find a cure.

Warrick's mother, Nancy Coulter, had her own words to share with the crowd.

"My daughter continues to inspire me everyday," said Coulter, an active member of the society and the SCV 2009 Woman of the Year.

Coulter spoke about the prevalence of the disease and the urgent need to find a cure, encouraging the room of supporters to fight together in this quest.

"Heather makes every day a joyful one. She continues to move forward so positively," said Coulter. "And that makes being her mother the best job in the world."

After Warrick's emotional plea for support towards the research that will help people like her and countless others living with the disease, the gala's "Cancer Challenge" was launched.

The challenge gave participants a chance to help fund the programs and services provided through the organization.

The event's auctioneer began his challenge at $2,500, an amount Walt Disney Studios offered to meet, if raised.

From there, supporters were asked if they wanted to pledge $1,000 and then $500, which were each supported by several attendees.

Finally, the auctioneer asked for $100 pledges, which raised many hands in the room in support of the cause.

Figures from the evening are still being tallied with estimated amounts close to $8,000.

All proceeds from the event will benefit community programs and services offered by the organization.

The ACS is the largest non-profit governmental funder of cancer research in the United States, dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem through research, advocacy, education and services.

The organization has spent nearly three billion dollars to find a cure since 1946. Due to advancements in research from funding, the five-year survival rate among patients has doubled.

But members of the society said this is only one step on the road to complete victory.

"We are working to create a world with more birthdays, where cancer doesn't get a chance to steal another year from someone's life," said Spahr.

"I so want the day to arrive when other families don't have to talk about their loved ones in a past tense," said Diana Sevanian, ACS member and La Bella Vida publicity chairwoman. "I believe in the society's goal for making this mission a reality."

Black said future developments in cancer research are all the more reason to have high hopes.

"This field has transformed so greatly over the past 20 years, that it will only continue to improve from here," said Black. "These developments are a big cause for hope in patients and their families. We are in this business because we believe in what we can accomplish together."

For more information about the American Cancer Society, visit www.cancer.org or call(800) 227-2345.

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