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Gift of a smile where it's needed most

Gerry "Nan" DeMeo received endless support from friends and relatives in December as she underwent radiation treatment for breast cancer.

But it was the goodwill of strangers that really struck her. DeMeo received one of the gift baskets that a volunteer group distributes to patients at Forbes Regional Hospital's Intercommunity Cancer Center in Monroeville.

"I was like a little kid with an Easter basket," said DeMeo, 80, of Turtle Creek, who recalled getting a basket stuffed with goodies such as candy, hot chocolate and lip gloss. "I was speechless, to tell the truth."

When her family saw how the gift lifted her spirits, they decided to return the favor by putting together gift bags of their own. On Friday, four generations of DeMeo's family, including her daughter, granddaughters and great-granddaughter, will pass out Valentine's Day gift bags to patients and staff at the cancer center.

"She was so happy about (the gift basket) and so excited," said granddaughter Lauren Conway of Monroeville. "I thought it would be really cute to do something for not only the patients, but the employees at the intercommunity cancer center, just really as a gift of gratitude from our entire family to show how thankful we are that they took such good care of her."

Daughter Gerry McLaughlin of Monroeville asked her volunteer group, Verizon Pioneers, to sponsor the event, which they are calling "Hugs from Nan." Relatives pitched in money to fill red and white gift bags with a variety of treats, including lemon drops, bath soap, stationery and heart-shaped Smiley cookies donated by Eat'n Park.

The family made 35 bags for patients and 15 to give to the center's staff. DeMeo, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in July, said she wanted to include the employees because they always reassured her and kept her informed about her treatment.

"They were always concerned," she said. "They were always asking, 'How do you feel?'"

Beth Madrishin, the center's supervisor, said patients always appreciate getting gifts because it reminds them people are thinking about them. The Valentine's Day theme is perfect, she said, because there typically aren't events for patients around this holiday.

"I think it's a great time of year to pick because it really is a holiday that's all about love," she said. "Now these people will be thought of, and they know they're being thought of by someone who just had treatment."

DeMeo received radiation treatment at the center, which is part of the West Penn Allegheny Health System, in December and January after undergoing two lumpectomies. The treatment was successful, and there are no traces of cancer, her family said.

McLaughlin said doctors were able to detect the cancer at its earliest stage because her mother gets annual mammograms.

"Early detection is the key," McLaughlin said.

Although DeMeo won't have to return to the center for treatment, she and her family plan to visit every year to pass out more Valentine's Day gift bags.

"It's just a simple way to say thanks, really," Conway said.

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