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Kentucky by Heart: Breast cancer is ‘common denominator’ in group’s shared journey

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

It was 1999 in Lexington, and five women who attended the Southern Acres Christian Church made it a habit to have lunch together. They usually enjoyed the food and, for sure, they enjoyed each other. But what mostly brought them together was a health issue each had, and it brought out the best in them.

“Breast cancer was the common denominator in our group,” said Mary McKinley. “In meeting together, we realized how much we supported each other with the tidbits we picked up from each other.” By “tidbits,” she meant the words of encouragement, similar experiences, fears, and questions that each woman shared. Ironically, most of the gathering had breast cancer surgery within six months of each other. The subject was fresh, and wholly on their minds.

The Journey breast cancer support group leader Mary McKinley (Photo Provided)

The Journey breast cancer support group leader Mary McKinley (Photo Provided)

Besides Mary, the participants were Eva Camper, Sylvia Lyons, Suzanne Isaacs and Wilma Young. “Sylvia was six years out, and she was a great resource and support,” explained Mary. As they shared, a frequent word popped into their conversations: journey.

“We were always talking about our journeys we had going through breast cancer,” Mary said, “and so we decided to call the group ‘The Journey.’”

They soon took their association to another level, that of becoming an outreach program to provide encouragement for those navigating the challenges of breast cancer outside the group. It was decided to offer an attractive gift basket, and there would be much thought put into the contents. It would be delivered with a personal visit and words of support—and it would be offered to individuals as early in the illness process as possible. That’s because of the initial fear—and often shock–that people have at the outset of the diagnosis.

Visits were not always easy. “I met a woman who told me about the cancer diagnosis: ‘I didn’t ask for this and I didn’t sign up for it,’” said Mary. “I could sense her anger, and it was okay for her to be angry, to resent it. It’s always good to be a good listener, and let people be angry at first.” Mary’s patience, she believes, was rewarded later when the women remarked about her being blessed by the visit.

The initiative continues today. Every month is, like October, Breast Cancer Awareness month with The Journey members. The gift baskets include stationary, thank you notes, stamps, journals, socks, etc., and, Mary said, “always contain the Word of God.” Most all the items are donated, often from the church that Mary now attends, Tates Creek Christian, in Lexington. “The ladies’ circles at the church, I can’t say enough good about,” she said, “and the church has printed and paid for our brochures.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state, and still enjoys doing those one dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

The group meets on the first Tuesday of each month at O’Charley’s Restaurant on Harrodsburg Road, a place that Mary said “makes all the accommodations our group needs.” When all in the current group attends, there are from 12 to 15 present.

Over the years, the age range has been from as young as about 30 to as old as 90, and Mary remarked about two of the most elderly who died of something other than breast cancer—a point of celebration. “There have been great advancements in treatment since I had my surgery almost 17 years ago,” she said, and she makes a point to share that kind of information as the baskets are gifted and relationships develop.

Suzanne Isaacs called the giving of baskets a “non-threatening way of showing others that someone cares about what they are going through.” In speaking about the dynamics of being a part of The Journey, Sylvia Lyons remarked: “The group for me is a safe place…a sisterhood bonded by a journey of survival.

Even after 22 years as a survivor or for someone just diagnosed, we can relate, connect and let our hair down. We genuinely hear what each other is saying about their experience. It is very positive and encouraging.” A 17-year breast cancer survivor, Wilma Young, noted that she was “thankful to be part of this great group. As we started out supporting each other as friends, we saw a need to reach out to ladies who needed to see what it was like to feel good, to laugh, and see that we would share her journey.”

People from California and Iowa contacted Mary about starting similar groups, and she makes it a point to inform others about help from the American Cancer Society. “There are all kinds of good information on the local web site,” she said.

It is likely that The Journey’s long-time work of compassion has been successful because of the sincerity of the mission—and good leadership from Mary McKinley. She dismisses her influence, however. “It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s the entire group. I’m just the messenger. I want others to know that a person with breast cancer, 16 years out, still believes in life, still believes in hope for the future, and still plans to grow old.”

To contact Mary McKinley for more information about the group’s work, call 859-223-9781 or email marandfrank@windstream.net.

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Speaking of positive community initiatives by and for women in the central part of Kentucky, check out the Lexington Women’s Recognition Garden at 565 Wellington Way. A nice walk in the beautiful park there, along with stopping to enjoy the well-marked garden, is a pensive little place for happy engagement in the south part of town.

Victoria Meyer, RN health educator for Baptist HealthwoRx Lexington, said of the special place: “It is our dream to have a beautiful, peaceful and vibrant place to honor the women who make Lexington, Kentucky such a wonderful place to live and work.”

The garden was conceived as a project of the Mayor’s Health and Wellness Task Force and dedicated on May 7, 2010, by Mayor Jim Newberry.

Meyer called the LWRG “a place for the therapeutic and educational enjoyment of nature…and the hope is that in the contemplation of the bricks that honor these special women, it will serve as an inspiration and motivation for future generations of community builders.”
She concluded by describing the garden as an interactive place to visit, too. “We want everyone to enjoy the pleasure of the process. Nurturing native plants and herbs, cutting flowers, sharing seeds and digging in the dirt is a community effort and joy,” said Meyer.

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Editor’s Note: This column was originally published on Oct. 15, 2015


Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

To read more of Flairty’s Kentucky by Heart series on KyForward, click here.

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  1. Victoria Meyer says:

    Thanks Steve!

  2. Patti Bingham says:

    Wonderful article Steve. These women supporting each other, and their creation of the unique beautiful garden is as you stated inspirational.

  3. Savannah Jordan says:

    There you go Steve!! My grandma got the recognition she deserved!

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