Alberta Cancer Foundation

Tough Guys, Soft Hearts

Everybody’s experience with cancer is different, but many people are motivated to raise cash for the cause of research. Three tough Alberta men prove that fundraising can be more than the colour pink, an electric hair clipper, and cross-country running.

In spring, 2010, trucker Tom Jack and his wife Janice King drove from their home in Vegreville to Toronto to visit Jack’s brother-in-law, who had cancer.

TOUGH TALK: Tom Jack drove his anger in the right direction after his brother-in-law got sick.

On the drive home, Jack got mad.

He’d lost other family members to the disease and his sister recently had breast cancer. Seeing his sick brother-in-law, Tony Rossi, was the final straw.

“My wife said, ‘Cancer doesn’t care if you’re mad,’ ” says Jack, speaking on his hands-free phone, somewhere near Hardisty, Alberta. The low rumble of the road is just
audible in the background.

Of course, she was right. Jack realized he had to direct his anger to positive action. He decided to host a convoy of trucks that would drive from Vermillion to Lloydminster to raise money for the Alberta Cancer Foundation, benefiting the Cross Cancer Institute.

The first convoy was July 24, 2010, just months after Jack’s trip east, and the event raised more than $17,000.

Rossi wanted to attend the 2010 event but wasn’t feeling well. Instead, he spoke with Jack on the phone, as 35 trucks were getting ready to begin the journey. “Everybody had their air horns blaring for him,” says Jack.

Rossi died that September, and Jack decided to host the event annually and rename it Tony’s Convoy for Hope. “Tony said to me, ‘Never give up hope.’ And he didn’t,” says Jack, a father of three and grandfather of three.

The 2011 convoy raised more than $29,000 with 28 trucks driving the 65-kilometre route, ending at the Lloydminster fair grounds with a barbeque, live auction and bouncy castles. Jack drove the lead truck, which was decked out with 20-foot banners that bore the event’s name. His wife joined him in the passenger seat, while a son, grandson and an employee from local radio station 106.1 FM The Goat, where Jack is well-known on the airwaves as Trucker Tom, also came along for the ride.

Jack has logged more than one million kilometres in his trucking career and says driving in the convoy is an emotional journey – the most challenging kilometres he drives. “Some people say that truckers are tough,” says Jack. “Yeah, but we have big hearts.”

Jack hopes to have 50 trucks take part in the 2012 convoy, and says the anger he harboured has faded. “I’m not mad anymore and this [fundraiser] is my own outlet so I don’t get mad.”

George Hufnagel is a truck driver who’s also used wheels to raise funds for cancer.

SECOND TIME AROUND: George Hufnagel decided to speak up and raise funds when his cancer returned.

Hufnagel, a father of four and grandfather of five, was diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago, on his 25th wedding anniversary. The former funeral home director and current part-time long-distance truck driver didn’t want to make a big deal of his diagnosis. He thought treating the cancer would be a simple operation.

“It would be basically like an appendix operation,” says 53-year-old Hufnagel. “I’d go to the hospital, everything would be done with and that would be the last I’d hear of it.”
When the cancer came back in February of 2011, Hufnagel decided to speak out about prostate cancer. “I thought maybe the reason I got cancer a second time is because I have to do something with this, and make people more aware of prostate cancer.”

That something Hufnagel decided to do was a 14-day motorcycle ride in September 2011 from Lethbridge, where he lives, to California. The trip saw Hufnagel raise awareness and $1,700 for prostate cancer while clocking 7,944 kilometres on his Harley Davidson Heritage Classic, which he calls La Poderosa. He says the solo trip, during which he passed through Kamloops and Whistler and drove the Sea to Sky Highway, was an amazing experience.

Hufnagel worked as a funeral director for more than two decades and says he often heard stories about people who died right after buying a boat, planning a trip or retiring. He left the industry in 2005 to work at a job that offered more flexibility so he could enjoy life’s pleasures, which includes riding motorcycles.

“Lo and behold it wasn’t that long after I got out of the funeral business to enjoy life, that I discovered I had cancer,” says Hufnagel. When his cancer returned, Hufnagel underwent 33 rounds of radiation and today he’s waiting on blood tests to ensure the radiation eradicated the cancer.

Three years ago, Hufnagel was ignorant about prostate cancer. He views his cancer diagnosis as a gift that has allowed him to raise awareness about the disease. “When I was going through the radiation treatments, I saw everything that was around me, all the equipment, all the staff, the personnel and everything,” Hufnagel says. “I felt in some way, I wanted to be able to contribute to this.”

In five years, Derek “Digger” Berg has raised more than $43,000 for the Alberta Cancer Foundation by (specifically pediatric cancer research at the Cross Cancer Institute) hosting Digger’s annual BBQ for a Cure.

BUZZ KILL? Derek “Digger” Berg gets shaved.

The barbeque is a two-day festival held at the Electric Rodeo in Spruce Grove every August. The event includes poker runs, a head shave, a pancake breakfast, auctions, and live music.

Berg, a steamfitter who earned the nickname Digger as a child, has lost family members to cancer including his father and grandfather. It was his mom’s diagnosis that prompted him to create the annual barbeque. An eight-year-old boy who shared a hospital room with Digger’s father also inspired him.

Ten years ago, Berg went through rehab for drug addiction and found out that he suffered from low self worth and self esteem. He’s been clean for nine years and says putting on a popular community event helps raise money for an important cause, and helps improve his self esteem.

“Doing these barbeques…it gives me a great feeling that lasts all year long,” says Berg.

Berg’s mom passed away August 1, 2010, just three weeks before the fourth annual BBQ for a Cure.

“People said I should cancel and I said, ‘No damn way.’ This was a thing my mother was truly proud of me for,” says Berg, who lives in Stony Plain.

That year, Digger’s BBQ for a Cure went on as planned, but the event wasn’t without hiccups. Ugly, wet weather almost cancelled the motorcycle poker run, an event in which players on bikes visit checkpoints, selecting a playing card at each one. The biker with the best poker hand at the end wins. The event is a favourite, so Berg took matters into his own hands.

“I looked up at the sky and I said, ‘Ma, the boys are headed south. Pull this stuff off to the North.’ ”

The riders wiped off their seats, hopped on their bikes and away they went.

“As soon as they started to drive, the rain stopped,” says Berg. “They had thunderstorms on both sides of them, but on the entire run they never got one drop on them.”