Holding hope: One family's trial, like so many others, brings Relay for Life's purpose into sharp focus


Daren Coggins, second from right, is pictured with his wife, Angela, 8-year-old Justin, left, and 7-year-old James Wednesday at their home. The tightknit family enjoys boating, fishing and camping, and takes every opportunity to be outdoors. Daren, a Lowndes County conservation officer and Camp Rising Sun volunteer, has undergone treatment for cancer since September 2010.

Daren Coggins, second from right, is pictured with his wife, Angela, 8-year-old Justin, left, and 7-year-old James Wednesday at their home. The tightknit family enjoys boating, fishing and camping, and takes every opportunity to be outdoors. Daren, a Lowndes County conservation officer and Camp Rising Sun volunteer, has undergone treatment for cancer since September 2010. Photo by: Kelly Tippett


Jan Swoope





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Tuesday was a good day. The Daren Coggins family headed out for their favorite fishing hole in Lowndes County. James, 7, and Justin, 8, could barely contain their excitement: on this outing they would learn how to bait a hook with minnows. Dropping a line in the water for crappie and brim is one of their favorite pastimes. 


Muted plops of casts breaking the sun-dappled pond's surface mingled with the boys' chatter. And for a little while, 37-year-old Daren could push to the back of his mind thoughts of the next chemotherapy treatment looming on his calendar. 


The avid outdoorsman and Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks conservation officer was blind-sided in September 2010 with a diagnosis of cancer. 


"It was out of the blue; I really hadn't had any symptoms of anything, just woke up one day with a pain in the lower abdomen, and it didn't go away," he said, resting at home in Steens. He had undergone an intravenous chemo session the day before at Baptist Center for Cancer Care in Columbus. It's a procedure he's all too familiar with now. 


From Daren's initial diagnosis in 2010 until his surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital 10 days later, his weight plummeted 20 pounds on a liquid diet, and his world turned inside out.  


After surgery, his first six-month stint of chemo began. It was grueling, but worth it. The result was good news in the summer of 2011.  


"We were ecstatic because they couldn't find anything visually or on the scans at UAB, and he was in remission," said Angela, Daren's wife.  


The couple's relief, however, was short-lived. By September 2011, scans revealed new growth in the liver and elsewhere.  


"Everything was great for a couple of months, and then we found out it was back," shared Angela, her voice steady but pained. "It was devastating ... it was heartbreaking. Only faith kept us going." 




Coming together 


Daren and Angela's story is like those of many others fighting similar battles. They are the diagnosed fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers Relay for Life exists to help. 


The annual Lowndes County fundraiser for the American Cancer Society will bring together hundreds of volunteers April 27 in support of those who have faced cancer or lost a loved one to the disease. 


To date, 60 teams are signed up to participate in the overnight relay-style event at Columbus High School's soccer fields. (Five additional teams are "ghost teams" -- supporters who want to raise money, but, for various reasons, will not have a "campsite.")  


The move from its traditional site at Magnolia Bowl in downtown Columbus to the high school will generate improved access and parking, and offer additional conveniences, said Relay's Team Development Chair Mott Ellis. 


Angela remembered the 2010 Relay for Life, when she and Daren were on the team from New Salem Baptist Church, their church home in Caledonia 


"Storms came through, and we spent all night out there in the pouring rain ... and had the best time ever," she stressed, recalling the camaraderie, the common goal. "We were wet head to toe, and it was awesome. I can't believe that Relay exists all over the U.S., that people go out and raise money for one specific purpose -- to find a cure for this disease that touches everybody." 




Knowledge is power 


Daren and Angela face their obstacles together daily. 


Angela is an emergency room doctors' scribe, a District 1 volunteer firefighter, an emergency management responder and a qualified EMT. She's also fiercely committed to her husband's well being. 


Her exhaustive research led them to Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, Okla. Daren underwent intense surgery there in November 2011. He remained in the hospital for about a month. 


"It took me three months to start feeling better," he admitted. He's since undergone numerous rounds of radiation and, a few weeks ago, began a new regimen of chemo. 


But in February, he was able to return to a flexible work schedule as a conservation officer. 


"As far as me getting rid of cancer, it's probably not very likely," Daren shared candidly. "It's a matter of keeping it contained, waiting for new drugs." 


Angela continues diligent research, seeking out remedies for side effects of medication, staying up to date on trials and developments. 


"Knowledge is power," she stated with conviction. "The more I know the more I can help him, and that's my job -- to make it as easy as possible for him to go through it."  


She praised Dr. Robert Jones and Dr. Wail Alnas of the Center for Cancer Care in Columbus. 


"It's impossible to feel anxious when you're around them; they're so reassuring." 


The couple has hopes for a new type of chemo the FDA may release soon, one that might work well on the cancer Daren battles.  


"Your body builds up a resistance to each of these chemos; you can only do them so long," remarked Angela. "We try each of these medicines and hope for the best, and buy time while we try to find a cure." 




One day at a time 


The couple used to be habitual planners. 


"We planned out our entire lives, what we were going to do next year, next month, next week. Now we wake up every morning and say, 'What do we want to do today?' It's one step at a time, one day at a time." 


The challenges sometimes seem to mount. Daren's father underwent surgery very recently for a brain tumor. His sister was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago; she's now in remission. They all expect to be at Relay for Life April 27 to walk the survivors' lap together. 


"It definitely has a different meaning now," said Daren of the Relay event. "So much more personal, going as a survivor instead of a volunteer." 


Angela's words were measured and sure: "I want Daren to know how proud I am of him. I want him to know he's my hero. I've never seen anyone fight as hard, struggle so much and be willing to go in there the next week and do it again, all for us. I want him to know how strong he is." 




One step closer 


How important is Relay for Life? 


"They're saving my husband life," was Angela's ready reply. "How many people have an opportunity to save a life? ... They may not realize it, but everyone with the Relay is saving people's lives. ... My husband has been here two years, and he was given 15 months. They're providing people more time, more opportunities to smile and live and enjoy a day with a family -- and it means everything to me." 


Every dollar is hope, she continued, bringing more development, more research, more trials, more drugs developed. 


She is, she says, happier than she's ever been before. She credits that to faith. 


"God finally opened my eyes and showed me what was important. I used to worry about all these little things, and it dragged me down. Now my family's all that's important."


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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