A family's first trip to Disney World is a very special time.
In March 2013, Amanda Ray, along with her husband Nelson and two young sons, made that trip, and it was a great one. But Amanda was not herself. Of course, like all moms do, she pushed through and tried to have a good time in spite of the pain and fatigue. Between her preparations to run her first marathon and the extra time she spent studying to complete her doctorate, she thought her symptoms were just everyday exhaustion and stress.
A few months after returning home from their trip, Amanda collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room where preliminary tests showed spots on her liver. She and her husband were in disbelief that it could actually be cancer. Even when they visited with Amanda's primary care physician, her first reaction was disbelief. Upon further testing, it was confirmed that she had stage 4 colon cancer that had spread throughout her body.
Even in the face of this grim diagnosis, Amanda kept a strong and positive attitude.
"Amanda never thought she would lose the battle," Nelson said. "Cancer was never a bad word in our house. Our boys knew mommy was going to fight from the beginning."
And fight she did. Amanda faced chemotherapy treatments every two weeks and even spent Christmas Eve in the hospital.
When doctors in Nashville felt they had done everything they could, Nelson and Amanda reached out to Cancer Treatment Centers of America. They began making monthly trips to Illinois for experimental treatments. The trips were exhausting, but Amanda was determined.
"She had all the fight in her," family friend Jennifer Driver recalled. "She was so excited and encouraged each time she would arrive home at the airport and was greeted by so many friends and family holding signs and bringing flowers."
During this time, their family and friends exceeded their expectations. Some donated air miles; others took care of their children, and thousands of people prayed and sent words of encouragement. Driver created the Facebook page "Prayers for Amanda Ray" in January 2014 so that Nelson could easily share their journey with those who cared. Now, more than 3,000 people follow the page.
"People all over the world fell in love with Amanda," Nelson said. "We even received cards from people in other countries who were moved by her courage and faith."
Nelson went on to speak of how this tragedy gave Amanda and their family a "worldview of what a community should be." He spoke of the support given to them by their family at Emerge church of God as well as the amazing support from the Wilson County School System where Amanda worked.
Perhaps the greatest peace of mind came from the support the Rays received through Sherry's Run, the local grassroots non-profit that assists cancer patients with everyday expenses.
"Sherry's Run was at the backbone of our whole journey," Nelson said. "They gave me the peace of mind that allowed me to focus on caring for Amanda."
The support provided by Sherry's Run was more than financial. Through the organization, Nelson and Amanda were able to build a network of friends with other cancer fighters and event built a special bond with the Ronnie Lawson family that continues to this day.
Amanda was able to attend the Sherry's Run 5K Run/Walk in 2014.
"She felt terrible that morning when she got up, but she was determined to be there," Nelson said. "Once we got there and started visiting and talking with everyone, she had such a great time."
Amanda was able to take her sons through the large inflatable colon that Lebanon Digestive Services brings to the event, using it as a tool to explain what was going on inside her body and help them understand her illness.
About a month after the event, Tennessee State University came to the hospice care facility and hooded Amanda in an emotional ceremony during which she received the hard-earned title of Dr. Amanda Ray.
In December 2014, Amanda was moved home for hospice care, and Nelson's mother moved in to help with the boys. But, Amanda never stopped trying to care for her family. She requested that her hospital bed be placed in the living room so that she could spend time with visitors and be close to her family. Nelson and the boys even watched her pray and share her faith with people who came to see her.
Soon after, Amanda's brother came down from New Hampshire, and the family celebrated an early Christmas complete with a tree and all of the fixin's.
Amanda passed away on Dec. 14, 2014, surrounded by those she loved. Her legacy of love continues to show through everyone she knew.
"Mom was always having fun," sons Eli and Braeden said. "She loved to make our Halloween costumes and go fishing with us."
Still today, the boys tell of an invisible string that reaches from Amanda's heart to theirs, and how that string will always be there.
Amanda's legacy will live on this year at the 12th annual Sherry's Run 5K Run/Walk. Her family and friends have formed a team for the event, cleverly named "Hug Cancer aRay." This year's event is also being dedicated to her loving memory.
"When we began discussing the memorial recipient for this year's event, Amanda was the immediate choice," Sherry's Run Executive Board Member Tonyia Watson said. "Her story has inspired so many around the world, and we just wanted to be a part of honoring her legacy."
This year's event will be held on Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8 a.m. at 623 West Main Street in Lebanon. And after the cost of the event, over 90 cents of every dollar goes toward patient services and education. Your support allows Sherry's Run to assist cancer patients 52 weeks a year with gas, groceries, utility bills, housing payments, prescription assistance, health insurance premiums, medical bills and colonoscopy assistance.
To learn more about Sherry's Run, call (615) 925-2592. To refer someone who might qualify for assistance, call (615) 925-9932 or visit www.sherrysrun.org.