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Phoebe Foundation Announces 2023 Lights of Love Tree Lighters

Albany, Ga. | November 28, 2023 – The Phoebe Foundation will honor local cancer patients and their families with its beloved annual Lights of Love tree lighting ceremony this holiday season. Dr. Michael, Ruthie and Stephen Garner have been named the honorary tree lighters for this year’s ceremony, which will take place on Tuesday, December 12 at 7 p.m. outside the Phoebe Cancer Center.

The Garner family is all too familiar with what it’s like to deal with a cancer diagnosis and what it takes to defeat the disease.  Mike – a veteran Albany optometrist – set the tone for how his family would handle all future challenges when a visit to a doctor for kidney stones ended up revealing testicular cancer.

“We have a strong faith in the Lord, and I basically said, ‘I put this into your hands and into the hands of the doctors to do what’s necessary,’” Mike said recalling his diagnosis.  “I had a lot of people praying for me, and here I am almost 40 years later.”

That first cancer battle for the Garners came in 1984, just a few years after Mike married Ruthie, who for 30 years was a beloved host and news anchor on WALB.  In October 2013, Ruthie faced her own cancer battle when she was diagnosed with stage 3 fallopian tube cancer, an extremely rare form of the disease.

“It was scary,” Ruthie said.  She’s grateful she paid attention to her body, and she encourages other women to do the same.  “I didn’t feel bad.  I didn’t have any pain, but I started noticing some spotting, so I got to the doctor, and they ran some tests,” she said.  “So, women over the age of 45, if you start spotting, that’s a red flag.  Get it checked out.”

Just two and a half years later, cancer struck the family again.  This time it was Mike and Ruthie’s son Stephen who was 25 years old at the time.  He started coughing up blood and noticed a spot on one of his testicles.  Very quickly, he was diagnosed with the same rare kind of cancer that professional cyclist Lance Armstrong had – a form of testicular cancer that had metastasized to his lungs and brain.

“As a parent, you feel totally helpless even though we knew he was in good hands,” Ruthie said.  “It was the hardest faith walk I had ever been on.  You want to fix everything and you can’t.  All you can do is rely on the Lord and the physicians giving the care.”

The same world-renowned expert who cared for Armstrong designed the treatment regimen for Stephen.  He completed four rounds of intensive inpatient treatment at Phoebe and was declared in remission, but within a couple of months, the cancer returned.  “It’s like sitting in a pressure cooker,” Stephen said.  “It’s terrifying.”

Following another six-week treatment regimen, Stephen spent nearly five months undergoing bone marrow transplants at a hospital in Atlanta. “He never complained,” Ruthie said.  “He was in a battle for his life, and he did what he had to do.  It’s very difficult to watch your child go through this, but God is in control. You just have to release that into His hands.”

Stephen is doing great now.  He remains cancer free.  He’s a successful medical device sales representative in Atlanta, and he got married in February 2022.  However, as the Garners prepared for his wedding, cancer hit the family again.

Ten years after her initial cancer fight, Ruthie’s cancer returned.  Following major surgery, she went through eight cycles of chemotherapy at the Phoebe Cancer Center.  “It was great to be at home for treatment,” Ruthie said.  “Our closest friends are here.  We know people at the hospital.  Some of the nurses who took care of me also took care of Stephen, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how dedicated Dr. Krywicki is.”

The whole family is grateful for the care they received at Phoebe. Stephen called it “top-notch.”  Mike said “Albany is very fortunate” to have such expert cancer care.  And Ruthie said, “I’d put it up against any hospital in the country for the care we received as a family.”

The Garners will share their cancer journey and honor others battling the disease at this year’s Lights of Love event, but it’s not their first time as tree lighters. In 1989, Mike spoke at Phoebe’s Lights of Love ceremony, and Ruthie sang.  They also announced they were pregnant with Stephen. They’re excited to be invited back but jokingly added that two times is quite enough.

“It’s an honor for us, but I hope we don’t have to light it again,” Mike said with a chuckle. “It’s a wonderful event,” Ruthie added. “But we just want to light our own tree from now on.”

Lights will be lit in the thousands in honor and memory of loved ones, and donations to the beloved holiday event will benefit oncology patients receiving treatments at Phoebe. A symbolic light of love can be purchased for a suggested $25. To donate, call 229-312-4483 or visit

The public is invited to the Lights of Love ceremony on Tuesday, December 12 at 7 p.m. outside the Phoebe Cancer Center in Albany.