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Owners of Jarrettsville Nurseries at Holy Cross Road, Dana Saulsbury, second from left, and her children, from left, Ellie, Brandon and Tommy at the tree farm.
Owners of Jarrettsville Nurseries at Holy Cross Road, Dana Saulsbury, second from left, and her children, from left, Ellie, Brandon and Tommy at the tree farm. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Boyd Saulsbury was a caretaker.

The Christmas trees at Jarrettsville Nurseries at Holy Cross Road, a family-owned and run farm since 1961, required daily maintenance. He maintained foreclosed properties for banks as an entrepreneur. And when he wasn't working, he helped neighbors, friends and family in need. The tree farm supported various causes each year with donations and fundraising.

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"He always took care of people. If someone needed a job, he'd find a job," says his widow, Dana Saulsbury. "Or the family whose son was in the hospital, going over making sure their yard was mowed. He shared what he had with other people."

At 6 feet 7 inches and 305 pounds, Boyd was a presence in any room, a "gentle giant," who cared deeply about those around him, including his three children, Tommy, 27, Brandon, 20, and Ellie, 12.

"He was good at making things larger than life. Like himself," Dana Saulsbury said.

But in February 2015, the man who had spent so much of his life taking care of others found himself on the receiving end of the care. A Stage 3B small bowel cancer diagnosis changed everything for the Saulsbury family, who soon became vocal proponents of the cancer nonprofit that supported them through Boyd's death a year later.

Now, the family is picking up where their patriarch left off, caring for other families of cancer patients by supporting Cancer LifeNet, a program of Bel Air-based Kaufman Cancer Center at the University of Maryland's Upper Chesapeake Health.

Cancer LifeNet provides free services and support to any cancer patient in Cecil or Harford counties, regardless of where they are being treated. The programs and services are designed to provide support, information and assistance to the entire family in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. It encompasses three full-time social workers, four nurse navigators, a patient financial advocate, a nutritionist, up to a dozen support groups each month and various integrative medicine services including reiki, yoga classes and meditation classes.

For Boyd, cancer treatment first meant surgery that removed portions of his stomach, pancreas, gall bladder and small intestine. It was a long recovery process, and once completed he faced bi-weekly chemotherapy infusions that unfolded over three days.

Cancer LifeNet's nurse navigator services helped the Saulsburys coordinate follow-up care and treatments. But perhaps more important were the social work and support groups Cancer LifeNet provided, which helped Boyd and Dana talk about the cancer with each other when they had very different viewpoints.

As a former nurse, Dana knew the implications of the stage 3B diagnosis: an 18 percent chance of survival over three to five years.

"He didn't want to know about 18 percent. In Boyd's mind, it didn't matter what the staging was, he was going to beat this," she said. "I was the more the practical side: I had to know what I was dealing with. I was always optimistic and very hopeful, but I always knew what those chances were of it coming back."

Boyd turned to Michelle Byers, an oncology supportive care social worker with Cancer LifeNet, who "worked with him, really, just coping and dealing with the diagnosis and understanding his emotions, the different anxiety he was feeling. Even a lot of validating his feelings: his eagerness to do well, participate in his business and his home life and still be a husband and a father," Byers said.

For Dana, support groups and talking with a therapist helped her understand his viewpoint, and communicate with him about the cancer in the way he wanted and needed to hear.

"He needed to know that I believed he was going to… survive this. And I needed to learn how to be able to tell him what I was scared about," Dana said.

Byers counseled Dana as the caregiver, as well as their 12-year-old daughter, Ellie, who also participated in Cancer LifeNet's six-week support program for children who have a parent or grandparent with cancer.

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As the family found themselves increasingly on the receiving end of Cancer LifeNet's services, it brought them a new mission: supporting the organization that was helping steer them through the complex issues behind a cancer diagnosis.

Last year the Saulsbury family donated $1 for each tree sold at Jarrettsville Nurseries at Holy Cross Road to Cancer LifeNet, ultimately raising more than $5,000. They donated 50 wreaths to the nonprofit's Festival of Trees for Chesapeake Cancer Alliance, the fundraising arm of Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation, to sell at pure profit.

Just two weeks after a PET scan declared him cancer free, Boyd's cancer returned. He died three weeks later, in February 2016.

Over the past year, Dana and her two adult sons, Tommy and Brandon have taken over managing the 85-acre tree farm. And this year they will continue the legacy of giving to Cancer LifeNet, once again donating $1 of each tree sale to the organization, and donating wreaths to the Festival of Trees.

They also participated in the yearlong fundraising efforts leading up to Cancer LifeNet's biennial gala in October 2016, sponsoring a table and sharing their story with potential donors. The effort helped raise more than $1 million.

Boyd's story has inspired others to step forward. This year, 11 professional photographers will donate a portion of their proceeds from holiday photo shoots unfolding on the farm in November and December.

The idea originated with Jamie Pedrick, owner of La Bella Luna Photography, as she scouted locations to use for holiday portrait clients. She grew up in Harford County and had purchased trees from the farm in the past. She was inspired by the story of Boyd's cancer journey, and will donate $10 per session to Cancer LifeNet.

"I just felt like if I wanted to do something to give back, it would be really nice to give back to someone who has given back themselves," she said.

Other photographers pledging to donate a portion of proceeds soon followed, Dana said.

"When people are willing to share their story, it is incredibly inspiring to a community," said Ken Ferrara, vice president and executive director of the Upper Chesapeake Health Foundation, which has oversight of Cancer LifeNet.

"As a grateful family, they want to make sure the Cancer LifeNet program is there for others even though they're not in need of it anymore. So that's what is truly inspiring because that's neighbors helping friends and neighbors."

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