In 2017, the American Cancer Society predicts 1,688,780 new cases of cancer. Even more troubling, over 600,000 mothers, fathers, children and loved ones will lose their battle this year. Cancer knows no age, race or gender.
“I don’t care who you are, you will be affected by cancer in one way or another,” says Tony Mendola, managing partner of Oxford Downs. Tony understands the toll cancer can take on a family, as he lost his father in February 2016 to esophageal cancer. That’s exactly why he and the Jank family, Sharon and Mark, have decided to host a fun event combining awareness and education about the world-class cancer research facility at the University of Florida’s Cancer Research Center in Gainesville for residents of Ocala and The Villages.
“Sharon and Mark have been very vocal about their family’s battle with cancer, and they introduced me to the cancer center at UF. It blew my mind that we are a mere 35 miles from a world-class facility,” says Tony. Three members of the Jank family have experience with the disease. Mark, an ophthalmologist with Ocala Eye, was diagnosed with and beat oral cancer 15 years prior to his wife’s diagnosis of breast cancer in 2013.
“A year after my diagnosis in January 2014, my daughter, Molly, began experiencing pain in her leg,” Sharon recalls. “But she was 17, and we never expected it to be something more serious than some growing pains,” she says. But the pain was something more, and by February, Molly was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. While most 17 year olds were planning proms and graduation parties, Molly was receiving care at the UF Health Cancer Center. Today, she, Mark and Sharon are cancer free but feel they have a responsibility to share their stories with others in an effort to provide awareness about some of the latest breakthroughs in cancer research and treatments.
“We wanted to give back to the community and share with them everything we’ve been through, because we know how hard it can be,” says Sharon.
That’s when the group decided the best way to reach a large number of people would be to host a fundraising event for the Cancer Center. However, they wanted to do something less complex than a golf tournament that would, at the same time, appeal to a wide range of individuals. Thus, the Ante Up Against Cancer event was born.
The Ante Up Against Cancer event will be held at the newly opened Cardroom at Oxford Downs. The venue is situated on 70 acres that Tony describes as “picturesque,” and offers a variety of poker opportunities with simulcast horse and dog racing. This June, live quarter horse action will also be available.
“We are looking to be an entertainment destination,” says Director of Operations Randy Kiefer. He explains that the venue is continuing to grow and expand its offerings with the grand opening of the outdoor tiki bar featuring a full bar and top-notch cuisine. Located right outside The Villages and just South of Ocala, the venue seemed ideal to host the event.
“We especially want to bring awareness to the residents of The Villages,” explains Sharon. “So often people get discouraged thinking they need to go to the Moffitt Center in Tampa for medical care when UF is just up the road.” Sharon notes the importance of having UF’s world-class researchers available for a first or even second opinion.
Senior Director of Development for the UF Health Cancer Center Carré Mitchell is thrilled with the event and what it hopes to accomplish for both the Cancer Center and those affected by the disease.
“We have faculty and researchers from around the world working here,” Carré explains. “What really sets us apart is our patient care focus. We are trying to bring the latest techniques and methods for treating cancer from the lab to the patients where it makes a lasting impact,” she says, noting, though, that in order to bring patients their much-needed care, investors and funding are critical.
“Some of the most innovative techniques never make it past the first step because of lack of funding,” says Carré, explaining that even a small fund can parley into a much larger one once the research can get off the ground. With this in mind, the Jank family, along with the folks at Oxford Downs, have partnered with the UF Health Cancer Center to host not only an evening of entertainment even the most novice poker player can enjoy but to further the message that some of the best minds in cancer research are just down the road, experimenting with and employing the latest and most innovative trends in therapies and treatments—but they need funding and support to continue their work.
The Ante Up Against Cancer event will consist of a legitimate poker tournament with cash prizes for the winners. At the same time, there will be a presentation by the doctors and researchers from UF at the new outdoor tiki bar. Former patients and cancer survivors will also be on hand to share their stories and experiences and answer questions from the crowd.
“My wife and I are very excited for Oxford Downs to host an event like this,” says Tony, who hopes to host several charitable events at the new facility. “Poker tournaments are much easier to put on than golf tournaments, and you don’t have to be an expert to participate,” he explains.
The Ante Up Against Cancer event will take place on March 21, with registration beginning at 5:30pm and the tournament starting at 6pm. Halfway through the tournament, researchers from UF will present outside at the tiki bar. Those interested in attending but not tempted to test their hand at the card table can purchase a ticket for $25, which will include wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres. For more information, visit betoxford.com or call (352) 347-2273. For more information about the UF Health Cancer Research Center, visit cancer.ufl.edu.