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Roswell Park dedicates bridge of hope at Canalside

When Averl Anderson was first told she had breast cancer seven years ago, she became subsumed in her shock, blocking her from hearing anything else her doctor had to say.

On Wednesday, Anderson heard the silvery peel of a tiny bell – a symbol of hope for cancer survivors – as she affixed an ornamental bell to the Commercial Street Bridge at Canalside.

Anderson was joined by more than 100 other cancer survivors who attached their own little bells to the chain-link sidings of the footbridge at the intersection of Pearl Street and Perry Boulevard, transforming it into the Roswell Park Cancer Institute “Bridge of Hope.”

Roswell Park officials said the hanging of dozens of ornamental bells from the span was meant to be a twist on similar ceremonies held by cancer centers around the country at which a bell is rung in celebration each time a cancer patient completes his or her round of life-saving treatments. Anderson said the ceremony initiated by Roswell on Wednesday offered cancer survivors a better opportunity for reflection.

“I think this is more profound. See, you can ring that bell once at that other site, but you can come here and family can come and look at how beautiful it is down here,” she said of the Canalside setting.

“I can see my bell. That symbolizes who I am and what I’ve been through and the fact that I’m still here,” Anderson added.

Thomas P. Dee, president of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., called the project an inspiration for those who have completed their cancer treatments.

“As we look forward to this, this will become a place of reflection,” Dee said of the newly festooned Commercial Street Bridge.

Anderson, herself, reflected on the difficult but eye-opening odyssey she experienced from the time she received her initial diagnosis to having finished her final round of chemotherapy.

“You know, it blew my mind,” said Anderson, recalling how she reacted when she was first given her diagnosis.

“When I went to see the radiologist for my biopsy and she came back with the results … it was like everything she said was ‘wah, wah, wah.’ I just couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. But, you know, once I got myself together, my faith in God kicked in and, you know, I knew I had strength on my side. Still, it was kind of overwhelming. It was shocking. It was all that,” she said.

The youthful-looking 62-year-old mother of two sons and grandmother of 13 maintained a positive attitude and, with the support of her medical treatment team, was actively engaged in every step of her long recovery.

“They called me ‘1,000 questions Averl,’ ” she said, noting that she was not shy about seeking second opinions.

“You have to take charge of it, and then you have to get at peace with yourself in order to deal with it. You know, I’m not going to sit in my room and go ‘woe is me’ and all that sort of stuff. If my life is going to be shorter, I need to use every minute, second and hour to cherish and enjoy it,” Anderson added.

Now retired, Anderson was previously an advocate for those living with HIV/AIDS, and a community educator with the Buffalo-Niagara Witness Project at Roswell Park, a cancer education program for African-American women.

“I have great support from my family, and a couple of my friends are here today. I belong to some support groups. I’m an ambassador for Susan G. Komen Foundation. I’m a speaker for them. Our Curls is a support group for African-American women that have ethnic wigs and have (other) ethnic things. … I sit on their board,” said Anderson.

While she has regained her health, her treatments for breast cancer have robbed her of her hair.

“I’m bald now. I started to take my wig off. If it wasn’t raining, I would have taken my wig off,” Anderson said with a chuckle.

“Yes, you lose your hair, your eyebrows. And, you know, those are small things in life. You can handle that. I found out how strong I am. I can endure a lot. I can face a lot of things I previously didn’t want to. Cancer has changed my life for the good, because I’ve cut out things that didn’t matter. I don’t deal with unnecessary strife and stress, nor the people that cause it. I just enjoy my life. I travel. I speak and I advocate. I’m going to culinary school,” she added.