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Community: How We Beat Cancer Together

By the time Jeannie Brandenburg Hager discovered she had stage two breast cancer in October 2016, the shock generally associated with a cancer diagnosis was one she was accustomed to feeling. In fact, by this point, there was very little shock for her. She’d been experiencing the impact of the illness by way of close relatives since 1995. Several people in her family, including her father, mother and sister Elesa, had dealt with cancer.

This unfortunate familiarity with cancer helped Jeannie and her support system spring into battle mode after her diagnosis, so much so that the cancer, “Never had anything on me mentally because I knew there was no other option than to kick its butt,” she said.

There is an adage that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Jeannie and her siblings are going the distance. Determined to take out cancer, they’ve recruited all their friends to join them in their pursuit of victory over cancer. They’ve even named their annual fundraiser for the cause “Brandenburg and Friends.”

“We’ve lived here our whole lives, so everyone in the community knows at least one Brandenburg,” she said. “Without the community’s support, we wouldn’t have an event.”

Brandenburg and Friends started as a small backyard barbecue. But a few years after losing her father to cancer, the event took on a life of its own. Jeannie and her family were watching an NC State University basketball game when inspiration hit them all at once. “We all thought, ‘I mean, why not?’ ” Her dad had played basketball for NC State and loved Jim Valvano. Brandenburg and Friends became a fundraiser to benefit the V Foundation. “It’s all about the positivity of ‘we’re going to raise this money to help find a cure’ ” she said. “There’s no better feeling than to know that some of your funds go to that new testing. It’s something even I benefited from.”

Brandenburg and Friends is a private gathering held annually on the first Saturday of October. The event started as a small function. “We went from raising $200 in my sister’s back yard in 1996 to $19,500 last year, and now $25,000 in 2017,” said Jeannie.

She credits the success of Brandenburg and Friends to a variety of factors, beginning with the family of seven’s extensive network in Greensboro, N.C. – a network she describes as a community passionate about eradicating cancer. “We’ve lived here our whole lives, so everyone in the community knows at least one Brandenburg,” she said. “Without the community’s support, we wouldn’t have an event.”

The team that puts together Brandenburg and Friends is made up of 97 volunteers, as well as bands who donate their talent and time, college students who dedicate their semester breaks and local businesses who contribute to the event’s menu and silent auction. The ever-growing list of supporters has been a major factor in the event’s exponential success. “It gets easier and easier every year,” said Jeannie. “You only need a few people to just brainstorm and come up with an idea and grow from there.”

As she thinks back on the growth of Brandenburg and Friends, Jeannie is able to make some recommendations to people interested in curating their own successful DIY events to raise funds for cancer research. “You have to get people’s kids involved! Eventually, they’ll be the ones running it, and we’ll be sitting back and enjoying it.” She also emphasizes maintaining a razor-sharp focus on the cause. There is always someone else, someone new, someone you love, being diagnosed with cancer.

It’s been over a year since Jeannie’s diagnosis, and as her victorious attitude forewarned, “all is clear.” In the joyful spirit that a remission provides, she recalls powerful lessons from her past. “It goes back to what our parents taught us when we were kids,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and put in hard work for a really good cause. … And that’s exactly what we’ve done. Once we have a passion for something, we’re not going to give up.”