A celebration of survivorship
The sun shone one day last June as cancer survivors and their loved ones came together in Lexington. This time, they traded treatment rooms for a football stadium.
The 2022 Expressions of Courage Celebration was a day for camaraderie, education and motivation. Survivors and caregivers gathered at the Longship Club at Kroger Field on the University of Kentucky campus. It was the first time the Markey Cancer Center hosted the event since a two-year break during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Expressions of Courage is a National Cancer Survivors Day event. It is a chance for survivors and caregivers to celebrate the journey through cancer survivorship. Day-today cancer treatment is hard. And while it’s a relief when treatment is finished, the journey isn’t over. “As you continue through treatment, there are aspects that survivors need to manage,” said Joan Scales, director of psych-oncology services at Markey and a co-organizer of the event along with Emmy Hammons and Deborah Carey. “They need to stay on top of their health and do the right things to take care of themselves and lessen their chance of recurrence.”
A survivor’s story
Paul Johnson was one of many survivors who attended the event. After years of acid reflux, he learned he had a cancerous tumor in his esophagus in Spring 2021. He was diagnosed with stage 2 adenocarcinoma of the gastroesophageal (GE) junction.
“When they told me I had cancer, all I could think is that I was going to die,” Johnson said. But that wasn’t the case. After chemoradiation treatment, Johnson had surgery to remove his tumor at Markey. Then he had another hurdle to cross. He had to relearn how to eat after being on a feeding tube for six weeks. “Surgery is a whole different journey in and of itself, but I could not have asked for a better team,” he said.
The experience was transformative. “Especially after my tumor removal surgery, I actually had more time to reflect on and appreciate the family that I have left and my 27-year relationship with my husband,” Johnson said. “It taught me to have patience — that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
A chance to celebrate
Expressions of Courage began as an opportunity for survivors to share artwork on campus, including sculpture, quilts, paintings and music. This year’s event included an art gallery of submissions from attendees and their loved ones. Other highlights included a luncheon, musical performances, a photo booth and a healthy living panel.
The keynote speaker was Coach A.W. Hamilton, a Georgetown native and the head men’s basketball coach at Eastern Kentucky University. Hamilton is a survivor of stage 2 melanoma. “He empowered everybody to feel like they have what it takes to move forward in this journey as a survivor,” Scales said. “His passion was really uplifting for our survivors to hear.”
“It was nice to see patients socialize and celebrate this big milestone with other cancer survivors outside of the health care context. Watching them having a good time and taking pictures on the patio overlooking the stadium — it was a beautiful day.”
Markey team members and leaders greeted, guided and celebrated with survivors and caregivers.
A beautiful day
Expressions of Courage gave Johnson and other survivors the opportunity to experience UK in a new light.
“Our patients come from all over Kentucky, but they don’t get to enjoy the University of Kentucky outside of the buildings where they receive treatment,” said Emmy Hammons, quality assurance program manager at Markey. “It was nice to see patients socialize and celebrate this big milestone with other cancer survivors outside of the healthcare context. Watching them having a good time and taking pictures on the patio overlooking the stadium — it was a beautiful day.”
A year and a half after his cancer journey began, Johnson looks forward to the future. “I don’t think it dawned on me until very recently that I am actually cancer-free,” he said. He celebrated that milestone at the Expressions of Courage event and now hopes to expand his support network to include a group of other cancer survivors. “We already have at least one thing in common,” he said. “Forging new friendships with others who can relate to you on a deeper level is powerful.”