Community and Cancer at Center of AFC Fourth Anniversary. What was it like to be there?

Rafaela Prifti

At AFC’s Fourth Anniversary dinner the impact of its work was in full display for over 200 guests assembled at the grand hall in Canton, 15 miles southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, on Sunday. A multitude of snapshots, subtle and noticeable, told moving stories that go to the heart of AFC humanitarian mission – a hug to a partner who is currently in remission, a tearful eye of a daughter looking across the white clothed-table at her mother that recently completed a cycle of  radiation, a friend that pins the purple ribbon on the blazer upon entering the venue with their family members, the SOLD sign placed next to the hand-knitted deep yellow colored vest – an auction item donated by a survivor – a quiet embrace for a relative who received a cancer diagnosis – marked the Gala event of AFC USA.

From 2019 to 2023 the organization has helped 93 individuals, raised $ 163,000, had made donations including two hospitals in Albania and Kosovo thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the AFC Board, the Clinical Committee directed by Dr. Albana B. Mihali, MD, FACP, the donors and sponsors.

From the time of its founding through the Covid pandemic to the fourth anniversary and onward, the AFC is driven by its commitment to survivors. One of them, whose initials are L.L. and who agreed to be in the story, said that the day started out with her “not being keen on going to a party” and, by the end of the extended five-hour-event on Sunday, she “was truly glad to have been there.” A wife, mother and grandmother, L. L, a longtime resident of Boston, received her breast cancer diagnosis in May of this year. She underwent surgery and recently completed radiation, getting a good prognosis by doctors. “I honestly didn’t think of being at the AFC celebration. But now I’m so glad I came here,” she said stepping outside the venue with an AFC imprinted logo mug – souvenir which was the centerpiece at the table arrangement- arranged gracefully with freshly cut pink and red roses by Enkela Pance, a Board member and Brizida Koci. Recognitions and certificates of appreciation to some AFC supporters were presented by Board members, Dr. Ivi Kasimati and Irvin Cepa.    

The approach to every single detail at the Gala from the presentation, banners, slide show, auction items, donations for raffle prizes reflected the wealth of experience and the meticulous execution by the AFC caring team. 

Roberta Panariti, AFC Founder and President, understands the intricacies of the fight against cancer. Her sister Noela, Health Insurance Policy Leader and AFC Board member, is a four-year colorectal cancer survivor. Evidently fighting cancer is personal.

Emphasizing that point, Dr. Zhenisa Hysenaj, MD, a New York hematologist and oncologist specialist, and key note speaker at the event, said that “breast cancer, now counting at two million cases a year is not one disease, it’s many.” It might be the same diagnosis, but it is very different experiences for each individual. 

All three key note speakers, renowned specialists, Dr. Lorenc Malellari, MD in Colon Cancer and Dr. Hysenaj, MD in Breast Cancer, and Dr. Andreas Varkaris, MD at MA General Harvard Cancer Center, New Treatments and Clinical Trials, respectively underscored that testing and early screening saves lives. Looking into the future, Clinical Committee Chair, Albana Mihali, MD, FACP, hopes that “participating in clinical trials is an opportunity for the community.”

 “It is concerning that while colorectal cases in the older population are going down, the disease is trending upward among the young people,” said Dr. Lorenc Malellari, a California MD, double Board Certified in General Surgery and Rectal Surgery. In his presentation, Dr. Malellari, Medical Director at Robotic Surgical Center noted that colon cancer doesn’t manifest with any specific symptoms, which means it is even more important to test before one notice changes. “A small action that could save 40,000 lives a year,” he said. 

A reminder of the losses incurred along the journey was expressed in the form of a tribute to Dr. Çaushaj by Dr. Agim Aliaj. On the photos by the entrance and on the slides of the first AFC Gala 2019, Dr. Çaushaj’s smile injected joy to his colleagues. “There are over six hundred twenty organizations in the US that have the word cancer in their names. So what makes AFC unique?” asked Dr. Ivi Kasimati on Sunday. Then taking a few steps back toward the standup banner showing the logo with a circle of colorful ribbons spelling out the name Albanians Fighting Cancer, he ran his hand under the word Albanian. It prompted an immediate and enthusiastic applause. Feeling emotional but resolute in their commitment, all board members linked hands together inviting “everyone to symbolically join in” Dr. Agim Aliaj projected a gesture of the strength of standing with the community in the fight against cancer. 

It is worth noting the significance of the date and venue: October 1 being the first day of the Breast Cancer Awareness month, and the Blue Hill Country Club, Canton, Massachusetts, the venue of the first AFC Gala in 2019.

The opening act of the 2023 Gala was a nod to the AFC fundraiser in May of this year. Roberta Panariti, who holds a music degree from Albania before coming to the US, invited the Gala guests to join her in a sing-along of the unofficial hymn of Albanians. Across the tables all around the hall, the gentle croon by the audience of Dua me shume Shqiperine (I love Albania the most) evoked the emotions of the piano rendition by Genc Tukici at Boston Symphony Hall at the May fundraiser of AFC. The evening’s fine entertainment included a tasteful DJ selection of song records from all Albanian regions.

At home, L.L. put on the pink T shirt with the AFC logo that she picked up at the Gala. Looking at herself for the first time dressed in a garment she never owned before that Sunday. With her eyes fixated on one word, she said “I’m wearing my diagnosis,” expressing her will to reclaim what is hers – her powers over cancer.

The journey of AFC is not long in years, yet quite poignant in the lives of every day survivors.