New Year's Eve 2008 was a dark day for Melissa Pittman's family. She was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. It's an immediate death sentence for almost everyone who gets the news. Five years later, Melissa is still alive and helping others fight, all through the game of golf.
"There really is not a lot you can do for brain cancer," Pittman said early Friday morning near the putting green at East Lake Woodlands Country Club. "It's like, 'Here are some drugs. Have a nice day'".
The diagnoses wasn't easy for her family. Melissa had to quit her job at the country club. Her husband Jay had to learn to cook, she joked. Her two children, Alexandra and James, had to cart her around.
"They had to learn that they had a parent that might die," she said.
Moffit Cancer Center didn't have good news. Doctors told the family that only 20 percent of patients with her type of cancer survive for five years. Most die with a few months. That New Year's Eve night five years ago when Melissa's doctors told her family to go home and prepare to say goodbye to their wife and mother.
Instead, the family decided to fight back against cancer.
During the following summer, the time when doctors predicted Melissa would be gone, the family sat at the country club sharing Melissa's story with members. Touched by their struggle, members decided they needed a fund raising golf tournament to help raise money and awareness to help treat and eventually cure brain cancer. They called it Golfers vs. Brain Cancer.
"It really was a grass roots effort," said foundation co-chair George Massaua.
Seven weeks later, the club hosted its first ever golf tournament. The original hope was to draw 100 players.
"We teed off 192," said Melissa's husband, Jay.
Since then, the tournament has raised over $250,000 to help battle the disease that Melissa continues to fight. Every dollar goes to either Moffit or to the foundation, whose goal is to help pay for medical expenses for people dealing with the crushing monetary burden that cancer heaps on families.
"When I was little, I'd always get headaches," said 9-year-old Sara McCaslin, who has battled a brain tumor three times. "It's dead already but it's invisible but it's still there."
The Golfers vs. Brain Cancer foundation paid for Sara's recent trip to Pittsburgh to see doctors. At the doctor's last check, she's beating her cancer.
"If you look around, honestly, you're in awe," said James Pittman, who took a break from his studies at Florida Gulf Coast University to help his family host the Fifth Annual tournament on Friday. "It's breathtaking that my mom's still walking around and alive here today.
"She defies all odds. Her favorite quote is, 'Cancer is a word, not a sentence'. We've been using that since we walked out of that doctor's office."
Massaua expected to put on this year's tournament without Melissa in attendance. Common thinking would suggest he'd be right. But, five years after that first diagnoses, over 280 golfers showed up to play in the foundation's tournament. Over 350 participated in dinner and a silent auction afterwards. The foundation steadily continues to grow which means cancer continues to steadily be beaten.
"Moffit has now said the Melissa is the longest living patient they've ever had with this brain cancer. I think that sums it up," said Massaua. "We are here until the battle is over."
If you'd like to donate to the Golfers vs. Brain Cancer Foundations, you can do so on their website. You can also follow them on Twitter and on Facebook for more information on how the Pittman family continues to battle the disease.