Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Cancer wins celebrated

1,000 'treated like queens' at state mansion

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They greeted each other like old friends, like sisters, like soldiers in a familiar war. Some were bald from treatment. Others glowed with good health, their scars hidden under suits or dresses.

        Every year after the Derby, Kentucky's first lady Judi Patton pays tribute to women who have survived or are battling breast cancer. On Monday, 1,000 of them gath ered at the governor's mansion for a luncheon under a tent filled with flowers.

        The women were escorted to their seats by Kentucky National Guard officers in full dress uniform. They were toasted and applauded and pre sented with gifts. It was an extraordinary afternoon of camaraderie and celebration, they said.

        “I was amazed that there were that many (survivors), and when you think that's only a partial list ... ” said Shirley Brown of Florence, who attended her first “Celebration of Hope” on Monday. “It's amazing to see everybody looking so healthy.”

        Ms. Brown, whose cancer was treated two years ago, rode to Frankfort with about 80 other women from Northern Kentucky. Their bus trip and the luncheon were free; local sponsors included the Florence Women's Club, St. Elizabeth Medical Center, Executive Charter, TGIFriday's, the law office of Ziegler & Schneider and Boone County District Judge Michael Collins.

        Some in the Northern Kentucky group had attended before.

        “I was absolutely blown away,” said Mary Jo Debbeler Paul of Florence, recalling her first luncheon three years ago. “They treat us like queens.”

        Ms. Paul, 62, had a mastectomy and a lumpectomy in the late '90s.

        Last year, Virginia Stallings of Highland Heights sat with a young woman who had just been diagnosed and was wearing a head scarf. Sharing their table was a Louisville resident who had been cancer-free for 25 years.

        “When this lady from Louisville was talking, this young lady had tears running down her eyes,” recalled Mrs. Stallings, 70. “She seemed to be thinking, "There's hope after all.'”

        Among fellow survivors, the women can laugh about common experience. They know what it's like to be bald, to lose their eyebrows, to feel self-conscious at the mall. None of that matters at the Celebration of Hope, said Lona Martin, 46, an Edgewood resident whose cancer was treated in 1999.

        Cece Collins of Florence remembers her first luncheon three years ago as the day she stopped worrying about her wig.

        “When I got there, I saw the most beautiful women walking around bald-headed,” said Ms. Collins, 57. “That gave me strength. I thought, "These women are my heroes.'”


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