Cancer survivors push plan for park to honor those battling the disease

Sandy Stern, left, stands next to friend and three-time cancer survivor Patty Burke at the site of the Old Gullah Flea Market on Wednesday evening on Hilton Head Island. The pair hope to turn the site into a cancer survivors' park.
Sandy Stern, left, stands next to friend and three-time cancer survivor Patty Burke at the site of the Old Gullah Flea Market on Wednesday evening on Hilton Head Island. The pair hope to turn the site into a cancer survivors' park.

Port Royal Plantation resident Patty Burke walks through life with tunnel vision.

"There's always a light at the end," Burke says of that tunnel, "whether it be here on Earth or in heaven. I'm thankful for every single day."

For the past two decades, cancer has tried to snuff that light.

But for almost four years now, the 58-year-old Burke has been cancer-free. She wants others to know the hope she has found through her three bouts with the fatal disease.

That is why Burke and fellow Hilton Head Island resident Sandy Stern are pursuing a $1 million grant from the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation to build a cancer survivors' park at the Old Gullah Flea Market.

They are asking to lease about 4.5 acres of the town-owned former market site for $1 a year over 99 years, an arrangement similar to a deal between the Town of Hilton Head Island and the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.

Town officials seemed receptive to the idea earlier this month, but had some concerns. Some have stepped forward to donate their services.

Burke and Stern now have a long process to go through to reach their goal.


Burke's battle with cancer began 19 years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"It was awful. I was 38 years old and very devastated," she said. "I didn't talk about the prognosis. I just went through the motions."

She was given a clean bill of health after undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy.

Nine years later, she was diagnosed with a rare type of ovarian cancer. She was given two months to live.

She got a second, more promising opinion. Eight surgeries later, plus chemo and radiation, that cancer disappeared, too.

But six years later, cancer claimed her other breast. Again the cycle -- chemo, radiation, mastectomy.

"You have to have hope to get through something like that," Burke said. "It's not easy to find, but once you have it, it makes all the difference. And that is what this park is for -- to bring people hope."

She said the park would send a message to cancer patients that death and cancer are not synonymous. So when they are diagnosed, they will fight rather than give up.


Both she and Stern, though, have a ways to go before a park materializes.

"We're just in the talking phase right now," said Vangie Rich, executive director of the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation.

Since 1990, the Kansas City, Mo.-based Bloch foundation has given grants to 24 cities across the U.S. and Canada to build parks aimed at offering hope for cancer patients, survivors and their families, according to the organization's website.

The foundation requires parks be in highly visible locations, include a bronze sculpture symbolizing the journey through cancer treatment and feature a "Road to Recovery" and "Positive Mental Attitude Walk" with plaques about coping with cancer.

Burke and Stern presented their plans to the town Public Projects & Facilities committee Aug. 3. Initially, the two requested the town prepare and pay for the site, plan for the park, and -- if awarded the $1 million grant -- build the park. Some town officials balked at the idea in light of a five- to seven-year backlog of public improvement projects.

"This can't jump ahead of the list of other projects we've promised to people five to 10 years ago," said Mayor Tom Peeples.

Instead, Peeples volunteered to donate his company's services as construction manager and general contractor for the project. Local landscape architect Bill Dalton has agreed to develop the site plan, and Stern said she is working to establish a fund with the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry to receive donations.

The town, however, would be responsible for maintaining the park. About $100,000 of the $1 million grant would go toward perpetual maintenance, Stern said.

A similar proposal was rejected by the Austin, Texas, parks board in May.

The board turned down an offer of $1 million from the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation to build a cancer survivors' park. Officials said the cost to maintain the park -- $105,000 a year -- was too high for the cash-strapped department, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Some cancer patients also said written passages to be placed in the park ignore the reality that some cancer patients will not survive the disease. Others questioned whether the city should accept private money for public land, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Scott Liggett, Hilton Head's director of public projects, said it would be difficult to estimate what the town would spend each year to maintain the park, since its design has not been determined. As a way of comparison, he said the town spends about $12,000 a year on maintenance at Compass Rose Park. It spends about $250,000 a year to maintain all of its parks.


Stern, 62, whose husband Edward was diagnosed with throat cancer 11 years ago, visited two cancer survivors' parks in California. She said both were extremely "uplifting and inspirational" to her husband, who had part of his throat replaced with a portion of his intestine.

Peeples, whose mother-in-law and father-in-law died of cancer and whose older brother is fighting cancer, said the park would also be a "wonderful kick-start" for improvements on the north end of the island.

The issue is expected to come back before the town Public Projects & Facilities Committee later this fall.

"I was very depressed and cried a lot. But through faith I was able to get through that and go along with my life," Burke said of first being diagnosed with cancer. "Even if this touches just one person, it is worth it."