Pageant features cancer survivors

Fundraiser benefits Relay For Life
Jan. 29, 2013 @ 12:03 AM

The only thing better than seeing your child shine on stage, is knowing that they are doing it for a good, personal cause.

The fourth Holiday of Hope pageant, sponsored by The Mountain Press Relay For Life team, was held Saturday at the Sevierville Civic Center to raise money for the American Cancer Society's Relay For Life of Sevier County.

The pageant was open to girls and women from birth to age 25, and contestants were given the opportunity to enter in honor or memory of someone they know who's been affected by cancer.

Cancer survivors could also enter the pageant, and there was a special category for cancer survivors 25 and older.

"That category shows why we're here," said organizer Gail Crutchfield. "The survivors are the best part; they're the reason we do this."

Ashleigh Watson is the living, breathing representation of that reason. Of the 54 contestants, Ashleigh is one of seven survivors in the pageant.

Ashleigh was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer, the most common extracranial cancer in childhood, when she was 5 years old, during the Christmas season.

"I consider it a gift; it changed my life," Ashleigh said. "It gave me a whole new perspective and made me appreciate life more."

Ashleigh went through "lots of chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, surgeries," and her tumor was removed in April 2000

"It was a long road," said Ashleigh, who is now in her first year at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "But we're finally at the end of the tunnel."

Ashleigh's mother, Sharon, was proud of her daughter and was excited to see her on stage at the pageant.

"She is a blessing every day, and an answered prayer," Sharon said.

Sharon was also be able to watch her other daughter, Ashleigh's younger sister, Avery, who was also in the pageant. The Watsons first got involved in the pageant through Ashleigh's cousin, Jennifer McCarter, who was also diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer.

Jennifer was diagnosed last January, and although she's not in full remission, the signs are looking good.

"I have one more step to take with my treatment, and then I'll be in partial remission," she said. "Right now my scans are saying that I have shown significant improvement, and my bone marrow biopsy was negative this past time."

Jennifer's three sisters, Julie, Jessica and Jaime, also entered the pageant, and all four wore purple and yellow, their cancer colors.

"We decided to do it all together because we wanted to raise awareness for this type of cancer," Jennifer said.