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DePauw graduate honors mother as advocate for American Cancer Society

Friday, April 28, 2006

To remember her mother, Tricia Cooksey may only need to look in the mirror.

A teacher at Bloomington South High School, Barbara Cooksey spent her life helping others succeed. Although she worked hard to see that her students did well in life, it was her daughters who she pushed the most.

"My mom was very devoted to her family, my dad Chuck, me and my sister Amy, as well as to her students," Cooksey, an IU master's degree student and DePauw University graduate told the BannerGraphic. "She was our biggest fan."

When her mother died of colon cancer in 2005 at age 52, Cooksey knew the best way to honor her was to work as an advocate for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

It was familiar ground for the 24-year-old.

As a sorority pledge class member, Cooksey became involved in Relay for Life her freshman year at DePauw.

"I got to know the committee leaders and looked up to them," she said of her initial experience with the annual fundraiser in Putnam County.

Excited about the organization and recognizing how other friends had been touched by cancer in their families, she became a committee member her sophomore year.

"It hadn't affected me or my family or friends," she said. "I just saw a great thing with bringing the community together at DePauw. I thought Relay and the ACS had a good mission."

During Cooksey's junior year at DePauw she was co-chair of the event. She became Relay for Life chair her senior term, in 2004.

It was a week before the kickoff for her final undergraduate Relay that Cooksey received the news her mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer.

Although she had always appreciated the spirit and purpose of Relay, it suddenly became very personally understood for her in that moment.

"It was then that I was very truly deeply affected by cancer," she said.

At the luminaria ceremony during the 2004 event, Cooksey was able to speak publicly about her mother who, although she was undergoing treatment, was able to attend that night. Two other students also spoke about their mother's experiences with cancer at the ceremony.

"It was Mother's Day weekend and we were all able to reflect on our mothers," she said.

Her mother's diagnosis caused her to reconsider all she had put into Relay for Life, and as she returned to DePauw the next year as a graduate assistant in student affairs (through Indiana University), she stayed involved by consulting with the 2005 committee leaders.

However, making time to be with family while her mother was sick, kept her from being as committed as she had been in year's past.

By the time Relay for Life came in April, 2005, Barbara Cooksey had reached a critical point in her illness. Until then, Tricia Cooksey said she had not realized how serious the cancer was because of her mother's positive attitude.

She died in May, four days after Relay for Life closing ceremonies.

Tricia Cooksey remembered the luminaria ceremony that Saturday.

"I had not been as closely involved that year, so I had not been intricately familiar with the luminaria ceremony," she said.

"When I walked the track (during the ceremony) I saw about 50 luminaria for my mother. I had graduated and all my close friends were gone. That had a big effect on me and my family, it really meant a lot."

She explained the gesture is symbolic of what is at the heart of Relay for Life.

"It really helps to remember that so many care," she said. "Though they may not have personally known me, they supported me, and all of those people going through it."

Now, Cooksey said she understands the impact the ACS has on patients, their families and survivors.

For her family, she said, the knowledge gained in cancer research helped them learn about how the disease had affected other relatives and how it might affect her and her sister.

"We found out that it was familial," she said. "We underwent genetic counseling. My mother's great uncle had colon cancer, and there were other areas in my family where cancer was present."

Fortunately, she said the disease does occur sporadically within her family tree but is not genetic, and is not the result of a mutated gene.

"If we take the right steps, we can decrease our chances of getting it," she said of herself and her sister Amy, who attends Ball State University.

Cooksey said she hopes to help other families by supporting the ACS in her mother's memory.

"I hope to do more work and start a foundation in her name," she said. "She was a very strong woman who knew what she she wanted and what was important for her. People looked up to her and were influenced by her. She is my role model and she gave me a lot to strive for."

Relay for Life in Putnam County is set for noon-noon Saturday-Sunday at Blackstock Stadium at DePauw.

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