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Ernest Hooper: Legal giants inspire campaign to fight cancer among blacks

A tapestry of remarkable stories enveloped the Hilton Tampa Downtown ballroom on Monday night at the George Edgecomb Bar Associationís annual dinner.

You had the former bar president who doctors recently declared a cancer survivor; the founder of the renowned cancer research center who overcame a legislative fight to gain its initial funding; the former county judge whose remarkable life inspired not one but two organizations; and the trailblazing legal leader who had mentored many of the attorneys and judges present.

As noted by keynote speaker Dick Vitale ó himself inspiring for his consistent advocacy for pediatric cancer research ó you could feel the love in the room.

Yet Edgecomb Bar president and attorney Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy was at the center of all the warm well-wishes and positive vibes. As the emcee, she stood proudly on the dais as a tower of strength and a beacon of courage ó and that was before most of the attendees learned she suffered six miscarriages before giving birth to her first child Thaddeus in January 2017.

Jean-Pierre Coy revealed her story to the audience of more than 800. The event brought together two entities that honor George Edgecomb: the bar and the George Edgecomb Society, formed by Moffitt in 2016 to raise funds towards the study of racial disparities in cancer treatment.

Edgecomb, Hillsborough Countyís first African-American judge, died from leukemia in 1976 at the too-young age of 34. His struggle served as part of H. Lee Moffittís inspiration to seek funding from the Legislature for a world-class cancer center. It also inspired Edgecombís friend and former law partner, Delano Stewart, to help create the Edgecomb Bar.

Now Jean-Pierre Coy stands at the intersection of the two organizations along with attorney and past bar president Lanse Scriven, himself a survivor of prostate cancer. In fact, Jean-Pierre Coy believes divine providence may be involved in bringing the groups together.

She became president of the Edgecomb Bar in July 2016 and learned she was pregnant for the seventh time five days later. Given her history of miscarriages, she held her state as a closely guarded secret and continued to handle the duties of the presidency, even after doctors put her on bed rest in January 2017 while treating her for pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy complication from high blood pressure.

Her son Thaddeus was born seven weeks early but weighed in at a relatively healthy 5 pounds, 2 ounces, and spent only 10 days in the neonatal intensive cure unit.

Jean-Pierre Coy soldiered on and met with Scriven last summer about building a bridge with the upstart Edgecomb Society. The association of attorneys always holds true to the mantra of being social engineers. So it made sense to lend support to a group seeking to change the fact that for all cancers combined, the death rate for African-Americans is 25 percent higher.

A month later, doctors diagnosed Scriven with prostate cancer. In September, the relationship was formalized at the bar associationís annual membership luncheon.

A month later, doctors diagnosed Jean-Pierre Coy with breast cancer. The timing of it all makes her wonder.

"Itís not coincidental," Jean-Pierre Coy said. "Something is happening here. I really donít know what. I donít know why.

"Really Iím still processing everything thatís going on. Iím just going with the flow."

Going with the flow meant keeping her position as president. It meant handling conference calls from her bed and holding private meetings during chemo treatment.

It meant maintaining her practice, shaving all hair off when Thaddeus began pulling out plugs, forgoing wigs and telling friends and family, "This is me."

Her son is a source of strength ó she canít imagine him growing up without her ó and her friends and family have rallied behind her, often traveling from out of town. Her husband Travis, a Hillsborough County assistant state attorney, has been a "tremendous help."

But thereís also an internal strength, rooted in her Christian faith. Hereís hoping sheíll continue to do well as she endures an upcoming surgery and more treatments.

"I forget I have cancer until I look in the mirror," Jean-Pierre Coy said. "Iíve had something to do, family to help and things to look forward to. I havenít had a chance to wallow. I have so many responsibilities, I donít have time for that."

With Jean-Pierre Coy teaming with Scrivens and Moffittís Dr. B. Lee Green to help stage the Monday event, the Edgecomb Society received an infusion of more than $100,000 on Monday.

As she wrapped up the event, Jean-Pierre Coy said she had to keep remarks brief to avoid crying. She insisted her "boo-hoo" face was too ugly to reveal in public.

But given her perseverance and spirited attitude, thereís no way she can be anything but beautiful.

Thatís all Iím saying.

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