Mandy Shoptaw never envisioned herself as a cancer warrior. But when she accepted an invitation last year to co-chair the annual Cattle Baron’s Ball, benefiting the American Cancer Society in Arkansas, the Little Rock communications professional felt an immediate connection to the cause.


“I got bit by the bug,” Shoptaw says. “I love this mission and the fact that the proceeds we raise stay here in Arkansas – that they’re not being shipped out across the country – and that they provide access to care grants that touch real people. They help some of the sickest people, not wealthiest or poorest, but sickest people get the treatment they need. It’s just a beautiful thing.”

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Ari Crum and Mandy Shoptaw. Photo by Ryan Parker.

This year, Shoptaw is again chairing the organizing committee for Cattle Baron’s, one of the most anticipated events on the social calendar. Slated for Dec. 3, the event is headed for the Arkansas State Fairgrounds, an apt setting for the come-as-you-are gala that bills itself as boots and bling.


“In years past, Cattle Baron’s was held in downtown Little Rock,” Shoptaw notes. “But we’re very limited on the number of people who could be there, so we moved the event to the historic Barton Coliseum. It is the perfect venue because it is the home of state fairs and rodeos, and it just has that whole Western vibe to it.”


Behind the gourmet, heavy hors d’oeuvres, signature cocktails, live music and plenty of fun and games lies the all-too-serious mission of the American Cancer Society. Money raised from the event will help fund the organization’s ever-broadening scope of services, from early detection to supporting hospitals and health centers as they treat the sick and comfort their families. 


“I think we’ve come full circle here at the American Cancer Society,” says Krista Kirksey Thomas, strategic partnership manager for the society in the state of Arkansas. “When we first got going, it was a very short kind of vision. We were very patient-driven – you have cancer, what can we do for you?


“Through the last several years, we’ve adopted a much bigger vision where it’s more about prevention and early detection. It’s more the whole scope of the cancer – the life of the cancer, from early detection on. It’s a much bigger spectrum now, and we call that the continuum of care, from the very beginning to the very end.”


If it seems like cancer has always plagued humanity, it’s because it has. The earliest known description of cancer, though not referred to as such, dates back 3,000 years to the ancient Egyptians. Eight cases of breast tumors and the surgical steps taken to remove them are described in archeological writings, summed up gravely by the line, “There is no treatment.”


Having been around as long as it has, cancer has had time to worm its way into every family. And for each person stricken and suffering physically, there’s an entire brigade of family and friends who suffer emotionally out of love for them. Cancer strides caustically across the invisible yet indelible boundaries by which we divide ourselves and each other, striking alike the young and old, male and female, rich and poor, Black, white and everything in between. Before there was bubonic plague, polio, measles or influenza outbreaks, in the midst of AIDS and yes, well beyond COVID, there has been cancer. 


Arkansas’ dance with one of humanity’s greatest adversaries has been a plodding two-step. As with other health measurements, the state ranks high on the wrong end of prevention, risk factors, disease prevalence and mortality. Per American Cancer Society statistics, almost 19,000 new cancer cases will be diagnosed this year in Arkansas and nearly 6,500 deaths will occur. Lung, prostate and women’s breast cancer lead new cases, while lung cancer is far and away the most common species of killer in both men and women, both for 2022 and over the past five years.


Lifestyle has much to do with these sobering statistics. Though just a few percentage points behind the national average in the rate of endoscopy and women with up-to-date mammograms, it’s enough to rank Arkansas 43rd and 37th in the country, respectively, when it comes to these critical early tests. 


Meanwhile, risk factors are everywhere. Arkansas holds the third highest rate of adult and teen smoking and adult obesity in the U.S.  Arkansas has the highest rate of obese teens. While cancer death rates nationally have fallen sharply between 1991 and 2019 – to the tune of 3.5 million fewer deaths – Arkansas’s prevalent risk factors suggest The Natural State is missing out on much of that progress. 


The combined effect also casts a shadow on the state’s medical capacity, as health care centers are stretched beyond their limits by patients who need care and the shrinking reimbursement rates to help pay for it.


“CARTI is the largest oncology provider in the state of Arkansas, and still CARTI isn’t everywhere and can’t serve everyone, unfortunately,” says Jeremy Land, senior vice president for CARTI’s Regional Operations and president of the American Cancer Society Arkansas board.


“Historically, there’s only so much money in the billfold, especially when it comes to the many nonreimbursed, nonbillable services that patients benefit from, such as nurse navigation, genetic counseling, pathology. Some of the funds that Cattle Baron’s and the American Cancer Society bless us with every year go to paying for nonreimbursed services as well as patient needs such as transportation, housing and lodging.”


Into this void steps the American Cancer Society which, through its state offices, assists hospitals in funding the kinds of services that would be difficult to provide otherwise. Last year, the Arkansas office distributed $42,500 in transportation grants to four hospitals statewide to provide patients with rides to medical appointments; in 2022, that program grew to $137,500 across six hospitals. 


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In addition, the society distributed $75,000 in lodging grants to CARTI and UAMS to assist out-of-town cancer patients and their families, a grant program the organization would like to expand in 2023.


“We have a very rural state,” Land explains. “We are very much a commuter state, where patients have to travel, in many cases substantial distances, to be able to access the care they need, especially when it comes to specialty oncology care. Those resources, distributed at the local level, assist with those expenses.”


Much of this funding comes as a result of new American Cancer Society grant programs rolled out last year. Kirksey Thomas says one emphasis on this year’s gala is to raise money to directly fund those grants, keeping Arkansans’ money right here at home serving their friends and neighbors in ways that help them the most.


“We had lots of programs through the years that made people feel good, but weren’t doing much to actually get people through their treatment,” Thomas says. “That’s been a big mind shift for us is providing access to care and what that need looks like. Is it a gas card? Is it a bus ride? Is it a volunteer that takes you back and forth to your treatment? Is it we get you here and we pay for your hotel for all week because you’re getting 35 radiation treatments in a row? How do we help you get through your treatment?


“The coolest thing about that to me is, we give that money to the hospital, and the social workers determine where it goes. They know their patients best; they know the need and they use the grant money however they see fit. We’re very hands-off with it.”


Shoptaw says when it comes to American Cancer Society programs, Arkansans can be proud of what their state chapter is doing. For this reason, she adds, Cattle Baron’s stands out from other worthwhile causes and fundraising events as a way to directly impact the lives of others.


“Cancer affects everyone,” she says. “This is an opportunity to, on a large or small scale, do something that really impacts Arkansans who are going on that cancer journey. It is such a personal journey, and oftentimes, just a little bit of extra support is all someone needs to either feel more comfortable when they’re getting their treatments, or to actually get to their treatments. It’s such a lovely way to give back and to help others who are maybe struggling right now.”  


Cattle Baron'sSaturday, December 3

VIP Red Carpet Media Hour: 4 to 5 p.m.

Event Time: 5 to 10 p.m.

Barton Coliseum, Arkansas State Fairgrounds


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