Friday, October 26, 2007

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Sarah Cannon

The world knew her as Minnie Pearl, beloved country humorist, but Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon was also known in the Nashville community as a breast cancer survivor and dedicated supporter of cancer research and treatment.

Sarah Cannon was the daughter of a well-to-do Middle Tennessee family. She studied theater and dance in college, and discovered that she had a flair for comedy. She based her Minnie Pearl persona on a young mountain woman she met while with a touring theater company, and based many of her stories on characters and events she knew from her hometown of Centerville. In 1940, she became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and in later years became famous for her many appearances on Hee Haw. Onstage, she projected the appearance of a simple country woman with her $1.98 hat and exuberant "HOW-DEEE! I'm just so proud to be here!" But offstage, Sarah Cannon was known to Nashvillians as an important social figure and patron of the arts.

In 1985, Cannon was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she underwent a double mastectomy and radiation treatments. She devoted much of the rest of her life to helping fellow cancer patients. Cannon became an active supporter of the American Cancer Society and also became involved in the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation supporting cancer research and education. As she said, "Cancer can change your life at the drop of a hat. I know. It changed mine." Sarah Cannon maintained an active role in advocacy for cancer patients until her death from a stroke in 1996.

Before her death, Cannon agreed to lend her name to the cancer unit operated by the Tri-Star group of hospitals in Tennessee and Kentucky. Today, the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center serves thousands of cancer patients throughout the region. My wife is one of the many cancer survivors who has benefited from the expertise and professionalism of the Sarah Cannon physicians and staff. The Sarah Cannon Cancer Center continues today as a testament to the caring vision of the woman whose name it bears.