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Singer’s selfless gift benefits lung cancer program

July 30, 2015 | Dagny Stuart

In a town full of amazing singers, Nashville songstress Dawn Sears’ voice was something special.

Among the music professionals who tour with superstars and perform in Nashville recording sessions, Sears was celebrated for a voice of crystalline purity.

Dawn Sears

Singer Dawn Sears, who organized a benefit concert for Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s lung cancer program before her death last year, wanted the funds to advance the care for patients with the disease. (Photo courtesy Jim Ho)

The “Dawn Sears and Friends” event, emceed by Olympic figure skater and cancer survivor Scott Hamilton, and featuring performers Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and The Time Jumpers and the Riders in the Sky, raised more than $100,000, with more funds continuing to come in to VICC’s program.She was just as well known for her warm spirit, and before the Grammy-nominated musician succumbed to lung cancer in December 2014 she demonstrated that caring spirit by organizing a star-studded fundraising concert to benefit Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s (VICC) lung cancer program.

Leora Horn, M.D., M.Sc., associate professor of Medicine and clinical director of the Thoracic Oncology Program at VICC, who treated and developed a special bond with Sears, was amazed by the singer’s determination.

“She never complained and she was always looking to help others. She was incredibly motivated, and as she got sicker she never lost her determination. Nothing stopped her,” remembered Horn.

Dawn’s husband, Kenny, was first attracted by the sound of her voice, which he heard in Las Vegas where they both were performing. She was with her own band, while Kenny, a celebrated fiddle player and vocalist, was touring with singer Mel Tillis.

“I was playing blackjack one night after the show and heard her start singing and I just got up and left the table in the middle of a winning streak to see who was singing. She was playing drums and singing from behind the drums and she was so small you couldn’t find her back there. She was great,” said Kenny.

Kenny Sears

Kenny Sears said his wife was determined to see the concert through even though her disease was progressing.

A year later they were married, a union that would last for 27 years and produce daughter Tess, now 19.

Over the years Dawn was signed to contracts with both Warner Bros. and Decca records and scored hits with “Runaway Train” and the Grammy-nominated “Sweet Memories,” performed with The Time Jumpers, the Nashville-based band featuring singer Vince Gill, plus Kenny Sears and other talented session musicians.

As Dawn’s music career slowed, she trained as a clinical aesthetician and opened her own business, Skinsation, providing specialty skin care for customers.

But in 2013, Dawn was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer. She was treated with chemotherapy and radiation, but like many with lung cancer her disease recurred. She came to VICC searching for new treatments for her disease, and when traditional chemotherapy stopped working, Horn enrolled her in a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy drug. Unfortunately, Dawn developed a known complication from the therapy and had to discontinue the treatment. She then remained on standard lung cancer therapy until she died.

“We know that the majority of patients with lung cancer present with advanced stage disease at the time of diagnosis, and even those with early stage disease will often recur. This year in the United States, more than 220,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer and only 17 percent of those patients are alive at five years,” explained Horn.

Lung cancer research receives very little funding, according to Horn.

“It takes more lives than breast cancer but receives less than a tenth of the funding that breast cancer receives and none of the publicity.”

Horn and Kenny were amazed by Dawn’s tenacity in organizing the benefit concert, even as her cancer progressed. By the night of the concert, she could no longer sing, was in a wheelchair and on oxygen. But she was still smiling.

“People showed up for her and it was a really sweet night,” a tearful Kenny remembered. “There was a lot of love in the room that night for her. She did talk to everybody and thanked them for what they were doing … you could tell everybody was there for her, to support her. She was determined to see that and I think that’s why she hung on.”

A week later, Dawn Sears died at home. She was 53.

Dawn put no restrictions on the funds raised for lung cancer and today other VICC lung cancer patients are benefiting from her generosity.

“She wanted the money for our lung cancer research program to do whatever it is we need to do to advance the care for patients with this deadly disease. I thought that was pretty special that she would want to do that for Vanderbilt,” explained Horn.

Kenny said he and Tess are proud of that legacy.

“She was a great humanitarian. Everybody loved her. What a beautiful life she lived and everyone that knew her loved that.”

For more information about VICC and charitable giving, visit www.vicc.org/about/help.