Kentucky Derby

Focus on breast cancer at Oaks shows benefit of awareness

For Lauren Griffith, this year's Pink Out Day, at the 136th running of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, will have more meaning.

A year ago — the first year that the race for 3-year-old fillies was bathed in pink to raise awareness of the fight against breast cancer — the former Churchill Downs security guard was a 22-year survivor of breast cancer, a badge of honor that any survivor would love to claim.

She had had clean mammograms for about 20 years and knew she could be placed among the growing number of survivors of a disease that has benefited from research and awareness.

Still, having concentrated on the back and shoulder injuries that she suffered when a tornado blew through Ellis Park in 2005, Griffith failed to get a mammogram for four years. After two decades without a cancer recurrence, the pressure just wasn't there.

Several days after the Oaks and the Kentucky Derby last year, Griffith decided to take advantage of free mammograms being offered to backside employees at Churchill through first lady Jane Beshear's "Horses and Hope" project.

"I was working at Gate 5, the horseman's gate," Griffith said, "checking out the two-legged and four-legged animals before they came into the barn area.

"Some young ladies from the University of Louisville asked if I would like to have a free mammogram, courtesy of Horses and Hope."

Why not? It was free, and she hadn't had one in a few years. A couple of days later, she received an envelope that she thought was a survey about the process. She didn't open it.

It sat for nearly a week. When she opened the letter, Griffith learned that she had a suspicious area in her breast that officials wanted to examine at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center at the University of Louisville.

The results this time were not good. Griffith had breast cancer again.

"I never felt it," she said. "Thankfully, we caught it before it had gone into my bones or lymph nodes.

"If it hadn't been for Jane Beshear or Horses and Hope, I don't know when I would have gotten around to checking. I give all credit to the first lady and Churchill Downs for allowing them to come in to an area generally not open to the public, to do the exams for some who have never had a mammogram. I don't feel just like it was lucky; I feel like it was divine."

To date, 213 track employees have been scanned, and two cases of cancer have been found, including Griffith's.

Beshear, an unabashed horse enthusiast, founded Horses and Hope in 2008 with the Kentucky Cancer Program to heighten awareness of breast cancer, particularly for those who work at the four race tracks in the state. She approached the tracks' management, asking for a day when health care workers using information and a mobile mammography unit could examine workers at the tracks' backside.

"We provide a service for people who either have no insurance or very little," Beshear said. "By doing this, if we have the opportunity to catch it early, we save money as taxpayers."

Beshear asked to make Horses and Hope part of the Oaks.

"Before the year was out, Churchill had taken that budding idea and partnered with the Susan G. Komen foundation," Beshear said. "They started the plan, and we worked with them on it."

Last year, Churchill agreed to donate $1 to the Komen foundation for every ticket sold to the Oaks. Also, the track agreed to donate $1 to Horses and Hope from every Oaks Lily — the signature drink of the event, made with vodka, triple sec, sweet and sour mix, and cranberry juice — sold.

"We received more than $30,000 last year," Beshear said.

This year, the mammo gram program will be expanded to include horse-farm workers and all track employees.

At the Oaks on Friday, 136 breast cancer survivors, men and women, will parade from the stands to form a human winner's circle around the winning filly as Beshear presents the winning jockey with the traditional garland of lilies.

Pink is the official color of the Kentucky Oaks and breast cancer awareness, and attendees are encouraged to wear that color to show their support. The track will be adorned with pink bunting and flags, and the jockeys and bugler will wear pink. The festivities will be telecast on the Bravo television network.

On Monday, Beshear will host a free brunch for breast cancer survivors.

"All this shows we Kentuckians care about our people," said Beshear, whose mother died of colon cancer and whose husband, our governor, survived prostate cancer.

"My job in my position is to advocate for all health issues, particularly for women," she said. "That for me goes all the way from obesity to all the other forms of cancer."

Early detection is the avenue to treatment and being a survivor. By elevating this disease, we elevate all the others at the same time.