This year, 145 survivors, filled with pride at what they have overcome, will march on the historic track in advance of the 145th Oaks. Their aim is to raise awareness of breast and ovarian cancer and to encourage fans to make donations to Derby Divas and the Norton Cancer Institute Breast Health Program.
Fans may visit www.kentuckyderby.com/survivors to donate. Here are the stories of three of the courageous women chosen to participate in the Survivors Parade.
JESSICA SIDENER, 39, Parker, Colo.
Sidener is dedicating her life to turning tragedy into triumph. Six months after Tylor, her husband, committed suicide at 45, she discovered a lump in her breast during her first self-examination.
“I had to take control of a lot of things and I said, ‘I need to take control of my health as well,’” she said of her willingness to check herself even though she had no family history of cancer.
Her vigilance led to extremely early detection of the malignant lump in January 2017. A lumpectomy was performed to eradicate it.
Sidener, who works in the Arapahoe Library System, took things a step further by creating a program called “Night Out With The Girls.” Approximately 20 women meet for a two-hour session with a healthcare professional and a cancer survivor in a setting designed to make hard questions approachable.
“Breast cancer is tough to talk about. Breast cancer detection is tough to talk about,” Sidener said. “I will say we have fun and learn about breast cancer detection at the same time. It is a win. It is a huge win.”
It will be another major victory as she travels from Colorado to walk in the Survivors Parade. She never hesitated to make the trip.
“Heck, yeah,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to participate?”
JULIE VASQUEZ, 56, San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Adversity came rapid-fire for Vasquez. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2011 when a mammogram revealed two tumors in her right breast and another in her left breast. Her husband left her the following year.
Vasquez underwent a total mastectomy followed by three months of chemotherapy that proved to be debilitating. She credits her son, Blake, 15 at the time, with helping her to weather the storm. She chose Blake to walk beside her in the Survivors Parade.
“It will mean a lot to me because during that time, it was probably the worst time in my life,” she said. “My husband left and it was just my son and he took care of me. I don’t know if I could have done it without him, actually.”
Vasquez works in the health center at California Polytechnic State University. She also has two daughters, Alexandra, 33, and Victoria, 29.
She devotes some of her free time by visiting with cancer patients and their loved ones as a volunteer.
“I know it can be very lonely,” she said. “A lot of friends disappear because they don’t know what to say.”
She may find herself speechless two days after the Oaks. Blake, a biology major, graduates from the University of Kentucky on Sunday.
SARA WESTERMAN, 43, Crestwood, Ky.
When Dr. Matthew Brown informed Westerman of her breast cancer diagnosis last November, she all but raised clenched fists after hearing the news.
“Okay,” she responded. “So what are we going to do?”
The answer was a bilateral mastectomy during which five lymph nodes were removed. The surgery was performed by Dr. Brown on Jan. 14.
“That was the eviction date, so to say,” Westerman said.
Westerman and Barry, her husband for the last 19 years, have two children, Lexi, 15, and Ty, 11. Ty asked if T-shirts could be made and an informal group known as “Westerman’s Warriors” was formed.
“I never knew the love and support that was out there for me,” Westerman said. “For the past six months, the love and support shown to me has just carried me through this.”
She cannot overemphasize how important it is for women to regularly undergo mammograms.
“That is the only way my cancer could have been found,” she said. “My cancer could not have been found checking myself.”
Westerman, a communications specialist with Kentucky Lottery, views the parade as an opportunity to thank all of those who helped her, from healthcare providers to friends. She hopes many women can follow the example of her aunt, Sonia Woodall. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 40. She is 75.
“Women can beat this if it’s caught early enough. You cannot be afraid of it,” Westerman said. “Even if you have a bilateral mastectomy, you can get your life back.”