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by Melanie Formentin / Tampa Bay Lightning
When Katia Solomon was less than two years old she was diagnosed with one of the worst kinds of leukemia. Solomon has waged a daily battle against cancer for four years, fighting through relapses, bone marrow transplants and countless surgeries, but she is not alone in her quest to beat the disease. With the help of family members, friends and caregivers Katia continues to fight against her cancer, and her story is similar to those of too many families in the Tampa Bay area.

In an effort to raise awareness about cancer, related research and how the disease affects the lives of thousands of cancer patients, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Lightning Foundation once again joined with community leaders to host Tampa Bay Fights Cancer Night when the Lightning faced the Washington Capitals on November 16. For the seventh consecutive season, the Lightning partnered with local lawyer Steve Yerrid and The Yerrid Foundation to host this special event.

Every year thousands of local patients, families and caregivers who are touched by cancer are invited to the St. Pete Times Forum for a night of fun, entertainment and hockey. Recognizable yellow shirts that are distributed at the arena can be seen throughout the Tampa Bay area long after the yearly event concludes, and special event merchandise is sold to benefit local research facilities such as the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.

Most importantly, however, recognition is given not only to cancer patients and survivors, but to the supporting cast that is affected by the daily struggles. Maybe it is no surprise that the Lightning are undefeated on the yearly Tampa Bay Fights Cancer Night as the team and community spread a message about hope.

As part of the tradition of the event, the centerpiece of Tampa Bay Fights Cancer Week, three special individuals are recognized as Yerrid’s Heroes. In the categories of patient, caregiver and family member, outstanding individuals are put in the spotlight not only to give hope for others affected, but to raise awareness of the efforts needed to fight cancer.

Solomon was among the three people named a Yerrid’s Hero. Solomon’s story of struggle and hope is one shared by caregiver Tracey Hernandez and family member Correna Kotsovolos. Although each family has a different story, the thing they share most is the love needed to beat cancer.

“My boys and I participated in this night even before my son had cancer, and this is a very special night to us,” Hernandez said. “My twins would always laugh at me because I would cry when they announced the heroes and the children, but the first year we participated as a family with cancer my twins finally understood.”

As a single mother of three young boys Hernandez was recognized for her efforts as a caregiver. In addition to caring for her son, Connor, who was diagnosed with leukemia, Hernandez is raising twins in the Tampa Bay area.

Described as a caring, loving and dedicated mother, Hernandez’s influence has stretched beyond her family. She is seen as someone whom other mothers can turn to for support and comfort, all while working diligently to advocate for her son and others who fight cancer.

“I do it all on my own, and just to be recognized – that people sat and tried to figure out who were going to be Heroes – just to know that my name came up would have been an honor enough,” Hernandez said. “To know that I was picked and to know that people look at me that highly… I was so overwhelmed.”

For those who assist loved ones in the fight against cancer, it seems a little recognition can go a long way. This season’s recipient of the family member award may be too young to fully appreciate that notion, but in time Correna Kotsovolos may understand just how much she helped her young brother, Demetri, in his battle against leukemia.

Correna, an 11-year-old sixth grader at Coachman Fundamental Middle School in Clearwater, Florida, is a loving sister to 7-year-old Demetri. Recognized for her maturity and patience, Correna regularly puts things aside to help her family attend to her brother or simply lend him support when times are hard.

For Correna’s mom, Karen Kotsovolos, receiving the Yerrid’s Heroes award is more than a simple honor. It’s a way of letting Correna know that she truly is making a difference.

“For her to get the recognition and be the one that’s being honored [is] a way to say, ‘See how important you really are, see how much you really do matter to everyone,’ and how important it is,” Karen said. “No matter how much we tell her, to have somebody else recognize it just really means the world to us. To be able to say, ‘Look what you’ve done.’ We’re very proud of her.”

Recalling stories of how Correna put her personal time aside at a yearly camp event hosted by the local Chidren’s Cancer Center, Karen relayed how her young daughter left her friends to console and calm her brother when he wasn’t feeling well. Karen freely points out that sometimes it’s easy to forget the little things, such as when Correna gets her own lunch because she knows her brother needs to be attended to.

“It makes life a little better when you can just see that she’s seeing how important she can be,” Karen said of Correna receiving the award. “It can probably have an impact on her life when she’s older.”

“Cancer has really affected almost all of us far more than we’ve ever really appreciated until we sit back, and I sit back, and think of the loved ones in [our] lifetime that have either had cancer and passed on or had cancer and really come back and fully appreciate life,” Yerrid said. “Cancer is a very prevalent disease in our society. If we can, we put money and resources right here at home and make a difference for these families, because we need it.”

In this 10th year of the league-wide Hockey Fights Cancer campaign, the Lightning have used events such as Hockey Fights Cancer Night to help further the vision and goals of those who fight against cancer physically and through research. By raising awareness and funds, the Lightning and other Tampa Bay community leaders hope to help the lives of those affected by the disease, including the special individuals recognized as Yerrid’s Heroes.

“I guess the biggest thing is, like Steve Yerrid says, let’s find a cure,” Hernandez said. “Let’s get together and find a cure because it’s going to take more than one of us. And when we look back, instead of thinking about all the horrible things that have happened to our family and to our little one, we think of all the fun things that we got to do because of the Lightning. That night was just like the icing on the cake.”

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