The dance floor at the Carolina Jamboree, a music festival in Belvedere, South Carolina, is crowded on a Friday night.
But one dancer stands out.
Not only because of his age — he’s 91 — but because of his passion, not just for dance, but for life. If you stop and talk to him, Charlie Derrick will tell you he prefers fast songs to slow ones, and seeing him on the dance floor, you believe it. He’s a blur of motion and smiles, whisking a seemingly endless number of women from one end of the dance hall to the other.
It’s obvious it’s not just the dancing he loves, however. It’s the event itself — the music, the people and their stories. Between dances, he makes the rounds, visiting with people he knows, offering them a smile and a hug. When he meets up with a friend he’s known for many years, he stops a little longer. The two used to go dancing with their wives until Derrick lost his wife six years ago. She’s never far from his heart and mind as he continues to enjoy their passion for dance on his own.
You’d never guess that little more than a year ago, the music and the dancing came to a sudden stop. That was when Derrick’s doctor told him there was a cancerous tumor growing on the side of his face. He credits his faith in God and the care provided by Dr. Michael Groves and the surgical team at the Georgia Cancer Center with getting him back on the dance floor doing what he loves and sharing that love with future generations.
“If there’s something I love more than dancing, it’s teaching young people how to dance,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to share my story to help them understand that faith and hope can help them through troubled times.”
Small bump leads to a life-changing experience
Derrick’s cancer journey began in March 2018 when he noticed a bump on the left side of his face. He asked his daughter, Kay Yonce, to look at the spot and share her thoughts. Yonce suggested her dad make an appointment with his primary care doctor.
“At first, it was about the size of a black-eyed pea,” Yonce said. “When he came by my house about a week later, I noticed the bump had grown to about the size of a dime.”
“My primary care doctor prescribed an antibiotic and told us it should clear the spot up,” Derrick said. “Instead, it continued to grow. When I followed up with my doctor, the bump was about the size of a quarter.”
After more testing, Derrick was referred to Groves, a member of the otolaryngology-head and neck surgery team at Augusta University Health and the Georgia Cancer Center. It was Groves who delivered the bad news in April: The bump on the side of Derrick’s face was squamous cell carcinoma from a previous skin lesion that had metastasized to lymph nodes in his parotid gland, the salivary gland that sits in front of the ear.
“When Dr. Groves told me I had cancer, I was surprised.” Derrick said. “After having an appointment with him and having him explain everything, I felt more comfortable with my diagnosis.”
Before the surgery, Groves shared his concern with Derrick and his family that he may have to sacrifice one or more branches of the facial nerve, which controls the muscles of the face, to completely remove the tumor. If he did, it would have affected Derrick’s ability to smile, close his left eye and raise his eyebrow.
It wasn’t just the location of the tumor Groves was concerned about, it was also Derrick’s age. He was 90 years old when he underwent the procedure. But Groves promised the family he would do everything in his power to deliver a successful surgery with little to no complications.
“This is the type of stuff that gets referred to us by the local primary care providers and private practice otolaryngology offices,” Groves said. “That’s where our expertise comes in. We know we have the skills to handle anything — even tough, high-risk cases like Mr. Derrick’s. We spent a considerable amount of time dissecting away the tumor without compromising the facial nerve. It was a better outcome than I anticipated.”
It is that outcome that affirmed Derrick’s and his family’s decision to trust Groves and the Georgia Cancer Center with the surgery.
While Derrick came through the surgery with no complications, he still needed radiation to treat any remaining tumor growth. In all, he underwent six weeks of radiation under the care of Dr. John Barrett, interim chairman for the Radiation Oncology Department, spending Monday through Friday at Radiation Oncology. Family members would make sure he didn’t go through the treatments alone.
“I have one of the greatest families in the world,” Derrick said. “Different members of the family would come and stay with me during my radiation treatments. I love them and they love me.”
It’s a family that includes three children, six grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild who is a little over 1 year old.
“When I finished radiation treatment, they gave me a graduation certificate,” Derrick said with a smile. “All of the radiation employees signed it. They told me I was the best patient they ever had.”
Derrick had to take a break from his Friday and Saturday night dancing during radiation, and he is enjoying being back on the dance floor.
“I fought the cancer as hard as I could,” he said. “I got a good fight in me and I won.”
A promise to never stop dancing
Dancing has been a part of Derrick’s life since the night he met the woman who would become his wife for 60 years.
“My wife was a better dancer than I was,” he said.
Before she died in July 2013, she made Derrick promise that if she died before he did, he would keep going to the dance parties they so enjoyed.
And he did.
Now, the 91-year-old still drives himself to the dance parties, and while he’s never stopped missing his favorite dance partner, he enjoys teaching the younger people how to dance.
“They’ll come and be so shy,” Derrick said. “I talk to them, show them the steps. I love to see young people get started.”
While he has a lot of wisdom to share on the dance floor, Derrick also has a message for people fighting cancer.
“I knew I was in a wonderful place to have my surgery and follow-up care,” he said. “It was a terrible thing to go through, but it was a life-giving experience. I still get tickled every morning I wake up and can open my eyes.”
Derrick said he has friends who have gone through cancer treatment in other cities, including Columbia and Charleston in South Carolina.
“I told them, if you want to get well, go to the Georgia Cancer Center. I think it’s the best place in the world,” he said.