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NORMAL — Janie Frank walked up to five decorated trees, searching for a poignant memory of Christmas.

"I'm looking for my sister, Sally," Frank explained as she read names attached to ornaments on one tree.

"Here she is: Sally Hill," Frank said. "That's awesome."

She paused.

"It's very emotional for me," explained Frank, of Bloomington, whose sister died in 2011 at age 57. "She had a lot of her treatments here."

"Here" was the Community Cancer Center, 407 E. Vernon Ave., Normal, which had its first-ever tree-lighting ceremony for its Tree of Hope on Thursday night.

The lighting of a tree outside the cancer center was part of a ceremony attended by about 100 people.

But the centerpiece of the Tree of Hope is five trees in the cancer center lobby, covered with 340 ornaments as of Thursday night. Each ornament is in memory of someone who died of cancer, in honor of a cancer survivor or in honor of a caregiver.

People who purchase ornaments make a donation to the cancer center to support treatments and services for patients who can't afford them, explained cancer center Executive Director Joe Prosser. As of Thursday night, $11,600 had been raised but people may purchase ornaments for $25 through the Christmas season, Prosser said. Some people donate more.

Ornaments are different colors, representing different types of cancer.

Hill's ornament is lavender for "all other cancers" because Hill died of an aggressive cancer whose origin was not determined, Frank said. Frank also purchased a pink ornament in memory of her mother, Jacquie Frank, who died in 2012 of breast cancer.

"My mom, my sister and my whole family were all about Christmas, so an ornament to honor them made sense," Frank said.

"It makes me feel good," she said of seeing her sister's and mother's names. "I think they would be very happy. They were both very giving."

Tree of Hope, which began in 2013, was the brainchild of Cathy Haas of Bloomington, who remains a Tree of Hope committee volunteer. Another volunteer committee member is Peggy Swerdlik of Normal.

Tree of Hope, Swerdlik said, was an answer to the question, "How can we help people during the holidays — which can be a difficult time of year for people who have lost a loved one to cancer — while expressing hope?

"These are trees of hope," Swerdlik said. "We look to the past but have hope of beating cancer to help those of us who survive."

Swerdlik's mother was diagnosed with leukemia just before Christmas and died two days after Christmas the following year.

"I look for ways to emulate my mom's spirit of giving during the holidays," Swerdlik said. "When I see her ornament, I smile and think she would be proud to be on a tree of hope."

Haas pointed to a purple ornament in memory of her sister, Colleen Newberry, who died of pancreatic cancer, and a pink ornament in memory of her mother, Dolores Costigan, who died of breast cancer.

"The sad thing is there are so many cancers out there," Haas said. "But we call it the Tree of Hope for a reason. There is hope that someday there will be a cure for cancer."

Carolyn Newberg of Bloomington and her daughter, Mary Jo Newberg Campbell of Chicago, looked for five ornaments, including one in memory of Don Newberg, Carolyn's husband and Mary Jo's father, who died of lung cancer in February, just two months after he was diagnosed.

"It's emotional for us," Newberg Campbell said. "It was very quick so it's still kind of raw. But this is an awesome center. They took really good care of my dad."

"Every day," Carolyn Newberg said, "we're moving toward a cure."

"I have heard the word 'cancer' three times in my life," three-time breast cancer survivor Sonja Reece of Normal told The Pantagraph after speaking at the ceremony. "But this is a season of hope."

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Health Reporter

Health reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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