ABOUT THE AWARDS
Since 1972, the awards that recognize volunteerism have been presented on the local and national levels. Each year a national winner is selected in four categories: elected or public officials, private citizens, people benefiting the disadvantaged and individuals 35 or younger. The final winner of Chattanooga’s Jefferson Awards will attend the national awards program in Washington, D.C., in the spring.
Every morning Robert Richelson makes a smoothie for his wife.
“Sweetie?” he asks while she gets ready for work. “Do you want blueberries? Blueberries and banana? Strawberries and blueberries?”
It’s all she can eat — smoothies then soup, smoothies then soup, smoothies then soup — after half the base of her tongue was removed nine years ago because it was the root of the oral cancer spreading through her body.
Like most people growing into middle age, the Richelsons knew cancer could be waiting for them, but they didn’t expect it to be like this.
Tongue cancer takes a person’s hair and energy like its more common colon and breast and prostate cousins. But when it grows from the base of a tongue, it takes saliva, too. It takes gums. It takes the freedom to speak clearly. It takes pizza and hamburgers. It marks patients with bumpy scars that climb from the middle of the neck to the lips.
And there it was in 36-year-old Jeanna Richelson in 2002, again in 2003 and again in 2005. And through 92 radiation treatments over a decade, few people but her husband, Robert, understood the turmoil of the uncommon cancer.
“The cancer was not just mine. It was ours,” said Jeanna Richelson, who is a February nominee for the 2011 Jefferson Award for her efforts to battle the impact of oral, head and neck cancer in the community. “We had nobody to talk to. We didn’t know if everything was normal.”
She hadn’t met anyone like her in Chattanooga, but several years ago she decided to reach out and find them. She scheduled the Chattanooga Chapter of Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer to meet the first Monday of every month at Memorial Hospital.
It was the first support group of its kind in the region, said Robert Richelson, who nominated her for the Jefferson Award.
The first week, one person showed up. Now, as many as 25 people come each month, Richelson said. Some come from as far away as Knoxville to connect with other survivors.
Richelson, 47, tells them how hard it is to have to carry a strainer in her purse and sneak to the bathroom to strain chunky restaurant soups. And they understand her.
They talk about how depressed they feel sometimes. They talk about how important it is to have someone who loves them through it, someone like Robert Richelson, who calls Jeanna “the love of my life.”
She comforts the ones left alone because partners couldn’t hold on through the bad.
“I want people to know they aren’t by themselves,” she said.
And in the end, she reminds them to stay positive, to choose not to be left out, to swallow even though it hurts and to talk even though it’s embarrassing.
“Just go, and try to make the best of it,” she said.
Wednesday was Jeanna Richelson’s birthday, and she knew she wasn’t getting cake, but she still was going out to eat.
“She won’t be able to have [the food she loved] ever again,” said Robert Richelson. “All that is over with. She’s learned to accept her situation. ... She has to.”
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...