“It’s basically a time for them to celebrate their survivorship,” said Jana Smith, Manderson Cancer Center outreach coordinator. “To be a cancer survivor means, at any point in your life, you’ve been told that you have cancer. So, it might be someone that is currently in treatment, or was just diagnosed, or it might be someone who is 10 or 15 years out.”
More than 400 people, including 125 cancer survivors along with their caregivers, volunteers, vendors, special guests, and cancer center employees attended the event, which was titled “Kicking Cancer in the Tailgate.” To keep with the theme, cheerleaders from Shelton State Community College and the University of Alabama pumped up the crowd, Big Al jiggled his belly, and the Alabama Dance Line performed. University of Alabama Head Gymnastics Coach Dana Duckworth and former UA Athletics Director Bill Battle served as guest speakers.
After leading the survivors in a dance, Duckworth delivered an inspirational message. “She talked to the survivors about the power of the voices that we hear,” Smith said.
“She talked about how everyone has a strong voice and a weak voice, and which one are you going to feed? Because, when you are battling something like cancer you need to quiet that weak voice as much as you can and let that strong voice come through.”
Battle, a cancer survivor who was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2014, began his keynote address by calling his wife, Mary, to the stage.
“He got up with Mary, his wife, and wanted to talk about the importance of having a good support system when you’re going through cancer, and basically publicly praised her for love and support of him as he went through it,” Smith said.
Battle spent much of his time not as a coach, but instead as a peer, answering personal questions from the other survivors. He touched on topics like how he communicated with his doctors, overcame his fear, and kept a positive attitude, which resonated with cancer survivor Phyllis Olive.
“He told us, you can either lie in a fetal position or you can get up every day and make the best of it, smile, put on your lipstick, and try to have the best attitude,” Olive said. “So, I think attitude makes the difference.”
A highlight of the day for everyone was the fashion show, which featured about a dozen survivors strutting down the runway in clothes provided by Chico’s and The Locker Room, as cancer center employees cheered them on.
Like many, Olive, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in 2014, lost her hair during treatment. It was during that time she was encouraged by the employees at the cancer center to take part in the fashion show.
“When I was going through my chemotherapy, they asked me to model in the little fashion show, and I was a little hesitant at first because I was pretty private. But all of my sweet nurses talked me into it, and I ended up having a lot of fun, which is kind of something you need to interject into your life when you’re going through chemotherapy,” Olive said.
The event also provides an opportunity for cancer center employees and survivors to interact outside the clinical setting.
“It’s fun for our employees to see the patients when they are strong and healthier after they’ve gotten through the treatment,” Smith said.
“It’s wonderful, because so many people that have been out for a little while come by the office to speak or give us a hug,” said Jennifer Walker, a social worker at the center. “Just to see them come through, and see that they are doing so well, it is always just wonderful.”
Olive agreed. “I loved seeing all of my nurses, and all of the people that worked at the center. It’s just always so nice to see them. It was like a mini reunion.”
Among the more than 40 volunteers at this year’s event was Latrelle Porter, executive director of Hospice of West Alabama, who teaches Zumba classes in her spare time. She led the survivors in a workout. While this was Porter’s first year as a volunteer, she said it won’t be her last.
“Working at Hospice, I see people at end of life, and for me, this event is so moving because it is people who are fighters to the core. They don’t give up.” Porter said. “To be able to be part of a day that honors them, and encourages them, and makes them feel that people are behind them, it is just a very special thing.”
Volunteer Karen Thomas, an 11-year breast cancer survivor, helped survivors and caregivers create beautiful works of art in the cancer center’s art therapy studio. Participants painted kindness rocks and placed their thumbprints on a canvas that will be displayed at the cancer center. Thomas has attended every Just for You Day, and says this event helps remind patients that they are more than their diagnosis.
“It’s a celebration of them, and a celebration of them moving forward,” Thomas said.
“We know it’s a scary, dark path, but we are letting them know, we are there with you to celebrate every step. I saw so much of the joy and hope this year. It was amazing.”