Like many in the auditorium Tuesday night, messages from singer-songwriter Amy Grant and presidential daughter Susan Ford Bales reverberated in Grandville resident Michelle Jones’ heart.
Jones, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, has lived their message of hope and promise. But she’s rarely felt it more deeply than she experienced this night.
“That was just a wonderful place for me,” Jones said of Spectrum Health’s third annual Candid Conversations event at the Jenison Center for the Arts. “It was warm to me. It was familiar to me. It was almost like (Grant) was talking just to me and we were having a conversation over some coffee. That’s how I felt.”
Jones had an added bonus—she met the multiple Grammy and Dove award winner before the concert and posed for a group photo.
Grant made special mention of the sequined pink hat Jones sported, a gift from Jones’ mom to adorn her balding head during chemotherapy treatments.
“You’ve got the best hat in these photos,” said Grant, who flew in from her Nashville home for the event.
“This is so wonderful,” said Jones, a long-time Amy Grant fan. “I tried not to cry when I came in. It was so wonderful she would take the time to come here. I was so excited that she even noticed me.”
Judy Smith, MD, Spectrum Health Cancer Center chief, emceed the event, which included women’s health care information booths, catered appetizers and music by the Jenison Public Schools Music Department and Mid-Life Crisis Band.
“We’re here to continue the conversation begun by Betty Ford,” Dr. Smith said of the former First Lady who publicly disclosed her own diagnosis in 1974. “That’s why we are here today, to create survivors.”
Dr. Smith noted that 421 women underwent mammograms soon after the first Candid Conversations event two years ago.
“We found 26 cancers,” she shared. “Another dozen got genetic testing. This event changes people’s lives.”
Bales, who has supported the Candid Conversations event since its inception, said her mom would be so pleased with the event.
“I was a high school teenager getting ready to start my senior year,” Bales told the audience. “With little or no advance notice, on August 8, I was told my dad was getting a new job and the next day our family was getting a new address.”
The new address labels read 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.
Less than two months later, Betty Ford sat her only daughter down on the White House steps and uttered four words the younger Ford will never forget: “I have breast cancer.”
“In those days the outlook was grim,” said Bales, tearing up as she spoke. “I just knew my mom was going to die.”
She didn’t. Not until 2011. But the Ford family continued to spread the word about the importance of mammograms and early detection.
“Please help us take this message beyond these walls and into homes, businesses and churches,” said Bales, who now lives in Oklahoma. “Early detection is a potent weapon against this disease. My mother’s message is direct. You have the power to do something to defeat breast cancer. You have the power to save lives. And you, like my mother, have the power to make a difference.”
The crowd ushered Bales offstage with a standing ovation, then turned silent when Amy Grant shared a myriad of life experiences, from growing up the youngest in a family of sisters to having a father who was a well-known radiology oncologist in Nashville.
She spoke of sharing fond outdoor music jams with her best friend before losing her to cancer in 2009.
Grant could empathize with the crowd, many of whom were cancer survivors or certainly knew someone who has fought cancer and won. Or someone who lost.
“When my sister was diagnosed with cancer, she kind of adopted a new mantra,” Grant said. “She said, ‘Girls, we’ve got to be where our feet are because that’s the moment we’ve got, that’s the moment we’re in. You can be in the moment, but not be in it because you can have anxiety about tomorrow or regrets about yesterday and the gift that’s right here that you’re breathing in you can’t even enjoy. You’ve got to be in the moment.”
She shared her fears about loss, and the many blessings she has gained. Ruth, her best friend who died of cancer six years ago, clearly continues to be an inspiration for her, a thread as strong in death as in life.
“Ruth and I used to take walks all the time,” Grant told the audience. “She had two separate years of remission, and oh, my, what amazing years they were. We got to make music together. You know the crazy thing she would say to me? ‘If I could take everything I have learned from this illness and put it in a capsule and make you swallow it, I would do that. I don’t know if I’ll live 50 years, four years or four months. But I know what matters.’”
She has learned, too, that the moments that matter in life are not the ones where everything goes as we have planned. Grant mixed words with songs and silliness with seriousness.
“This is one of those moments when all that really matters is crystal clear,” Grant sang. “We are woven together by whatever threads in life have brought us here.”
Jones was glad the threads brought her here.
“I felt like, here’s a room and there are cancer survivors all over the room,” she said. “And here’s Amy Grant taking time out of her schedule saying, ‘I support you.’ It was just a powerful feeling, like everybody was saying ‘we’re glad you made it, we’re glad that you’re here.'”