This was no ordinary holiday party.
Silver and purple decorations adorned the front door, fireplace mantel and piano. Practically every interior surface was alight with candles. And food, so much food—homemade breads, chicken satay, chilled shrimp, baked artichoke dip, deviled eggs and sweets—were elegantly displayed throughout the stately home approaching its 90th anniversary.
However, it wasn’t the decorations or the cuisine or the residence that distinguished this event. It was the guests—more than 100—who are all cancer survivors.
For 20 years now, Betty and Robert Castellani (retiring DeKalb County Superior Court judge) have opened their home for a party that partly toasts the holiday season but primarily celebrates survival. And this year was no different.
Betty Castellani, executive director of the Charles B. Eberhart Cancer Center and Pastoral Care Services at DeKalb Medical, said the party started simply enough two decades ago with the notion of diminishing feelings of sadness that routinely occur among cancer patients during the holidays. In the beginning, merely 20 patients and five staff members rejoiced over an assortment of covered dishes.
Now the guest list numbers nearly 150 and it’s a catered affair. The caterer for the past several years has been Julienne Hillyer, a two-time breast cancer survivor who traveled back to Atlanta from out of state to plan the menu, bake the breads and oversee the food and beverage.
She said it’s an event she wouldn’t miss and praises the center and the support of individuals such as Castellani for helping her to realize that she could still pursue her dreams—despite having a cancer diagnosis. That realization led her to turn away from corporate work in favor of her passion for cooking.
“I would not be the person I am today,” said Hillyer of the transformation that started with her diagnosis. She said she’s learned to embrace the “joy of life, the beauty of life.”
Guest May Morris, a five-year breast cancer survivor, attended the party this year for the second time and described it as “simply charming,” noting “the hospitality and the friendliness of the host, to say nothing of the good food.”
Darrie Wohlman, a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma who underwent a bone marrow transplant in 1993, said she remains involved with the center and the party because she wants to give hope to others.
“I think it’s important for newly diagnosed people to see people like me,” said Wohlman. “It’s not just about cancer, it’s about living.”
As the evening progressed, guests kept arriving—couples, families, groups of women—decked out in glittery finery, some in holiday sweaters and sweat shirts, several sporting Santa hats as well as pink ribbon jewelry. Conversations ranged from gleeful greetings to detailed explanations of treatment and recovery.
“Oh look who’s here, now we can start the party,” shouted someone.
“I’ve been a survivor for five years,” one guest shared with another. “I got a notice I may need to have a transplant.”
And at some point in the evening, Castellani spoke of living life to the fullest and others gave testimony about their journey and surviving cancer.
Castellani explained to a reporter prior to the beginning of the festivities that having hope and recognizing that one can make a choice to redefine oneself even with a cancer diagnosis are crucial elements to moving forward. And the holiday party is just one way of reminding them that they are among a growing group of people who are surviving cancer. She added that death is the first thing people think of when they hear about cancer and that although many patients are living longer and with more robust, these successes are not widely reported.
“What’s been neat is through the years people at the first party still come,” said Castellani, who is known to tell guests that they’re required to attend 25 consecutive parties.
According to Claudia Tinkle, program manager at the center, the party is a “celebration of life.”
“It’s not just like an office party,” said Tinkle. “It’s so much more. We do like to go the extra mile.”