Two years ago, Jack Strickland phoned his loved ones to offer what little advice he had left to give and planned his final Thanksgiving for early August. 

He had stage IV metastasized Merkel cell carcinoma — a terminal diagnosis. 

What was once a pea-sized blemish slowly morphed into something problematic.  

Strickland is just one of hundreds of former residents of Hope Lodge, a facility that provides temporary housing to those seeking cancer treatment in the Gainesville area. Strickland and others find solace in an annual dinner at Hope Lodge shared with UF’s gymnastics team. 

“Here, it’s a matter of life and death,” Strickland said. “Medical care is fantastic, but I believe emotional support is equally important.” 

Every January, Florida’s gymnasts help host a dinner for those battling cancer in an effort to promote awareness. 

“These gymnasts are real special, and we support them,” Strickland said. “(Coach Rhonda) Faehn is one of my biggest heroes.”

Since its inception in 2007, the Gators’ annual “Link to Pink” meet has raised breast cancer awareness.

Tonight’s dual meet at 7 against No. 18 Auburn marks the seventh time No. 3 Florida has participated in the Southeastern Conference initiative. 

“It’s such an amazing opportunity for both worlds to come together and for us to honor survivors of our surrounding community,” Faehn said. 

Bill Larsen was a guest at Tuesday’s meal.He has been a Hope Lodge resident since Dec. 10 after doctors discovered cancerous tumors along his Bronchial tubes.

He went through his final stage of chemotherapy on Tuesday. Larsen has grown to appreciate the hot meals and small talk with the gymnasts.

“They brighten [the residents] lives with their individual stories,” Strickland said. “These kids give us the courage to carry on.”

For Strickland, hope comes in both large and small doses. In the fall of 2011, PET scans revealed no traces of cancer left in his body. He said doctors were astounded.

Further scans and blood samples couldn’t explain the sudden disappearance. 

From that day on Strickland has been telling his story of survival. He has never shied away from being vocal about the impact the gymnasts have had on those fighting. 

Strickland will be in attendance tonight, reciprocating the Gators’ support of Hope Lodge. 

“If they can struggle on balance beam, then damn it, I can battle chemo,” Strickland said.

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