By Keysha Drexel
Later this month, Janie Ford Mayer will put on the most outlandish witch’s costume she can find, deck out her bike with streamers and signs, and ride through the streets of Homewood cackling as loud as she can.
And she knows all of that would make her mother proud.
Mayer is organizing the second annual Homewood Witches Ride Oct. 30 in an effort to celebrate the spirit of her late mother, Paula Stringfellow Ford, and to help raise money for the American Cancer Society.
“My mother loved life and she loved helping people, and I know she would love this event,” Mayer said. “It was her idea in the first place, and now we’ve brought it to Homewood.”
Ford was just 67 years old when she died of lung cancer in April 2013.
Mayer said her mother combined her penchant for fun and her passion for helping people by joining the Witches of South Walton fundraising ride a few years ago after she and her husband, H.C. “Henry” Ford, moved to Seagrove, Fla.
“My parents moved down there about 12 years ago, and Mom heard about women getting dressed up like witches to ride down to the elementary school on the morning of Halloween to hand out candy to the kids,” Mayer said. “That turned into a fundraiser for a children’s volunteer network, and it was something that everyone in that community looked forward to every year and that Mom looked forward to every year.”
Last October, as she and her family faced their first Halloween without their mother, Mayer said her thoughts turned to how much fun her mother had planning the Witches of South Walton event.
“It was about two weeks before Halloween last year, and I was kind of down and having a funky day,” Mayer said. “I mentioned to my sister, Claudia and my girlfriends that it would be fun to get all dressed up like Mom used to and ride through Homewood handing out candy.”
Word spread that Mayer was planning a memorial bike ride, and soon, the inaugural Homewood Witches Ride took on a life of its own, she said.
“We were really thinking it might be about 10 people max in the ride last year, but before I knew it, people were calling, people I didn’t even know, wanting to ride with us. It was incredible. The whole thing grew overnight, and the next thing I know, we are collecting items for a silent auction to help raise money for cancer research.”
About 80 people participated in last year’s ride, Mayer said.
“My dad came up from Florida, and we all had a champagne toast to my mom at the end of the ride,” she said. “It was just a great feeling to be able to honor her like that and to see all the people who came out to remember her.”
Mayer said almost as soon as she had finished the champagne toast to her mother last year, people started asking her about the next Homewood Witches Ride.
“I called the American Cancer Society and asked them what we could do to make the ride an official ACS fundraiser for 2014, and they have been fantastic about helping us coordinate everything for this year’s ride,” Mayer said.
Working with members of the Homewood Witches Ride planning committee––Dickinson, Elizabeth Hubbard, Michelle Sloan, Ronda Reynolds and Caroline Sain––Mayer has planned an event for this year that she said she hopes not only celebrates her mother and raises money for cancer research but also increases awareness about the prevalence of lung cancer in women.
“Every year in October, we hear a lot about breast cancer, and that’s awesome because that means more women are getting the information they need to take care of themselves and money is being raised for breast cancer research,” she said. “But at the same time, we also need to raise awareness about lung cancer, because it kills more women every year than even breast cancer.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, while breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, lung cancer actually takes the lives of more American women every year than breast cancer. Statistics show that breast cancer, lung cancer and colorectal cancer are the three most common cancers among women while lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women, followed by breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
“The statistics are something that I certainly never knew about, and I don’t think my mother ever thought she was at risk because she never smoked a day in her life,” Mayer said. “When you think of someone getting lung cancer, you think of someone who has smoked all their life or worked in a polluted place. My mother’s experience has changed my perspective on all that.”
Ford’s battle with lung cancer began about four years ago when she was diagnosed with pneumonia, Mayer said.
“Then she got pneumonia again, and even though they did x-rays, they thought the spots they were seeing was scar tissue from the pneumonia,” she said. “It was really weird that she had reoccurring pneumonia anyway because my mother was normally a very healthy person. She did Pure Barre four times a week, ate right and got check-ups.”
When she got pneumonia again early last year, her mother’s doctors ordered a lung biopsy, Mayer said.
“This was after going to four or five doctors over two or three years trying to figure out why she kept getting pneumonia,” Mayer said.
Ford was admitted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital for the lung biopsy. She hadn’t been in the operating room very long when a doctor came to the waiting area to talk to Mayer and the other family members gathered there.
“We knew immediately that something wasn’t right, because it’s never good when the doctors come out to talk to you in the middle of a procedure like that,” Mayer said. “The doctor told us he was shocked because they had just discovered that my mom’s lungs were covered with cancer, just covered.”
The doctor told them that Ford had bronchioloalveolar carcinoma, or BAC, a disease that is sometimes called the “mystery lung cancer” and accounts for 2-14 percent of all lung cancers. BAC is more likely to affect nonsmokers, women and Asians than other forms of lung cancer, and according to lung cancer expert Dr. Lynne Eldridge, its incidence appears to be increasing, especially among younger nonsmoking women.
BAC is also called the “masquerader,” according to Eldridge, because it is not uncommon for it to be mistaken for pneumonia or other lung diseases before it is properly diagnosed.
Mayer said she and her family got a heartbreaking and tragic crash course in just how deadly BAC is.
“My mother just never got better. She went into the hospital for the biopsy, and 10 days later, she died,” Mayer said. “She fought for 10 days, but we just didn’t know about the cancer in time.”
Mayer said her father never left her mother’s side during that last week and half.
“They were married for 45 years, and he was right there with her up until the very end,” she said.
Mayer’s maternal grandmother, 90-year-old Jane B. Hodges, a local designer, was also at the hospital every day.
“My mother and grandmother were extremely close,” Mayer said.
During her last few days, Mayer said, her mother exhibited her characteristic spunk and humor, even though she was very sick.
“Even in the hospital, she was the life of the party. She was joking and laughing with all the nurses, and they just adored her,” Mayer said. “She was worrying about not being able to fix her hair or put on her makeup and was making plans to start cancer treatments.”
But Ford never got a real chance to fight back against the lung cancer, her daughter said.
“She had had a good day and had two friends visit her. She had gotten out of the hospital bed and was sitting up in a chair when I left that night to go home,” Mayer said. “About 3 o’clock that next morning, we got a call that she had taken a turn for the worse and that we all needed to get down to the hospital to tell her goodbye.”
But Mayer said she never got a chance to really tell her mother goodbye.
“It all happened so fast, and she was already unconscious by the time we got back to the hospital,” she said. “We were all there with her when she passed, and it was amazing, as a family, to feel the Holy Spirit in that room.”
Even though they were still reeling from her mother’s sudden death, Mayer said she and her family members knew Ford would not want them to have the typical funeral for her.
“We knew that she would not want us hurting, and she would not want us to be sad,” Mayer said. “We had a celebration of her life on the beach instead of having a funeral, and I think she would have approved of that idea.”
“This is for anyone who has been affected by cancer, any type of cancer, and that’s pretty much everyone, unfortunately,” Mayer said. “I want people to come out and ride in honor of their loved ones and as a way to celebrate those people.”
The Oct. 30 event will kick off at 5 p.m. at The Studio on Linden, where Mayer, who is a jewelry designer, works. There will be a silent auction with items and packages from local retailers up for bid. Food trucks will be on hand to sell food for cyclists before the Homewood Witches Ride.
The ride will start around dusk at approximately 5:30 p.m., starting from Linden Avenue. The ride route will take cyclists through Homewood’s neighborhoods and back to Linden Avenue, where there will be a toast to Ford and all those affected by cancer. The ride will last about 30 minutes.
Mayer said riders can get tips on how to create the most creative witches’ costumes or how to decorate their bikes for the event on the Homewood Witches Ride Facebook page at www.facebook.com/homewoodwitchesride.
“The Facebook page will also have a map of the ride’s route and information on how to register as we get closer to Oct. 30,” Mayer said. “People will be able to register online and also on the day of the event, starting at 5 p.m. We’ll also have T-shirts and car decals available.”
Mayer said she was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support for the first Homewood Witches Ride last year and hopes this year’s event will be even bigger and raise money to help even more people.
“This whole thing has my mother’s influence written all over it, because it’s all about having fun, living life to the fullest and helping others,” Mayer said. “I think she would be proud.”