Loving memories of Hopptoad spur his good works

Anabel Nunez has a weenie roast and a man named Butch Miller to thank for her last two radiation treatments.

Nunez, 33, had gone through a double mastectomy and been through four weeks of five-day-a-week radiation. But the drive back and forth from Raleigh to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill was breaking the bank.

"I had nothing at that time," said Nunez, who lost her job at a nursing home following the surgery.

Then one of the oncology social workers at UNC showed her the pink sign-up sheet for a quiet organization with an unusual name: Help from Hopp, founded by Miller in 2005 in honor of his late wife, Sue.

On Dec. 13, 2001, Sue Miller was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer that brutally invaded her entire body. She died exactly three years later.

Butch Miller, a big teddy bear of a man, was heartbroken. Butch and Sue grew up just a few miles apart in West Raleigh and Cary, respectively, and met through friends in high school. During their 32-year marriage, they began a successful printing business and raised two sons. They lived a quiet, family-centered life.

Miller's nickname for Sue had always been Hopptoad. After she died, he wanted to do something in her name.

But Miller didn't want to compete with Race for the Cure, a huge organization that raises millions for research. He wanted to do something small but meaningful for individual cancer patients, regardless of financial need. He wanted to put a hand on a patient's shoulder to say, "Someone cares."

He started with $50 checks that patients could use for anything they wanted -- from lunch with a friend to a pedicure.

Tina Shaban, director of the Family and Patient Resource Center for cancer patients at UNC, said she quickly became a fan of the charity when she saw what a lift it gave to patients.

"It's like their entire lives become about the cancer," she said. "But this little bit of money is about them. What Butch and Help from Hopp do is bring a little hope to people in despair."

Miller got the idea from his neighbors and a hot-dog roast neither he nor Sue ever attended.

In the final months of Sue's life, the cancer had spread to her spine, leaving her paralyzed and demoralized. Even the doctors at UNC had given up on treatment.

Miller doggedly persisted. He found a clinical trial for Sue at a hospital in Texas and, with her doctor's OK, set up visits every three weeks for the new, aggressive treatments.

The Texas trips took a lot out of Sue. One night, when they'd returned from the airport to Cary and Miller had gotten his wife settled in bed, he was startled and none too thrilled to hear a knock at the door.

On the stoop stood Gary Johnson and several other neighbors.

"I told them Sue wasn't up for visitors, but they were grinning like maniacs," Miller said.

While the Millers were in Texas, the neighbors quietly held a fundraising cookout called Dogs for Dough. Johnson and another neighbor, Dave Byerly, had made up fliers describing the Millers' situation and inviting folks to stop by Johnson's house.

It's a small neighborhood, perhaps 35 houses, off Walnut Street in Cary. And on the day of the event, the weather did not cooperate.

"It was pouring down rain, but people came as if it were bright and sunny," Johnson said. "They'd pull in, drop off a check and grab a hot dog."

At the end of the day, the modest neighborhood had raised $1,600 -- enough for the Millers to buy the wheelchair Sue now needed. Johnson proudly presented a check to Miller the night of their return.

Miller stood in his own foyer and wept.

"It wasn't so much that we needed the money," Miller said. "We needed the boost. We needed the hope. Knowing that people in our little neighborhood would do something like that out of the blue made us feel really good at a very dark time."

Johnson said: "Butch has often said that Sue had told him that night that she just didn't think she could keep trying anymore. That changed her mind."

For the last year of Sue's life, Miller left the family printing business in a prospective buyer's hands to be by his wife's side. He has never regretted it.

During that time, he learned too well the toll cancer can take on the body -- and the spirit.

He also learned how a small gift -- with no elaborate requirements, no strings attached -- can brighten someone's day or get them out of a pinch.

Pam Baker, a resource specialist at UNC's Lineberger Cancer Center, said she has seen the role of the organization evolve over the past four years. During the first few years, she said, patients would use the money to buy a hat or splurge on some pampering item. But over time, she has seen Miller and Help from Hopp come to the rescue when patients needed money to continue their treatment.

"Several needed their cars fixed," Baker said. "When gas prices went through the roof, Butch helped a number of people pay for fuel to get from their cancer treatments back home."

Five years after Sue's death, Miller is remarried and happy in his new life.

But his devotion to Help from Hopp is unwavering

So far, the charity has raised about $50,000 with an annual golf tournament and other smaller fundraisers and word-of-mouth contributions. By Miller's estimate, the organization has helped about 300 patients, including Anabel Nunez, the breast cancer survivor.

"When I got that $50, I almost cried," Nunez said. "This really touched my heart."