Gina Lutz Celebrates Survival in Style
It’s been one week since Gina Lutz, an Acute Care RN specializing in Perioperative services, joined 148 other cancer survivors in the 15th annual Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade.
"It was such an honor to be with the other women who were fighting cancer," said Gina. “We were able to talk with each other and relate with all the symptoms each of us had or was having. They know what you are going through. Walking the track and receiving a standing ovation was just very emotional.”
The Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade is a cherished annual tradition to honor cancer survivors and raise awareness about women’s health. Since its inception, the Kentucky Oaks charitable initiative has raised over $1,000,000 for women’s health advocacy.
This year, Churchill Downs partnered with the Breast Health Program at Norton Cancer Institute and Horses & Hope. These organizations aim to increase delivery of critical services to provide care to underserved women across Kentucky, particularly those who lack access to breast health screenings and services.
“They had a vocalist singing ‘Fight Song’ and we were hugging and crying with each other. A flood of emotions were released and left in that winners circle.”
As this was the 149th parade, 149 participants were selected to march around the historic Churchill Downs racetrack.
“My name was sent in to the selection committee and a form was sent to me to fill out,” Gina recalled. “I don’t know who sent it in, but I suspect my husband. The selection panel reads the forms and will select the participants.”
When she discovered the committee selected her as one of the participants, she was ecstatic.
“I was so excited! I have had a visit to the Kentucky Derby on my bucket list for a long time.”
Guests and parade participants wear pink to raise national awareness of the fight against breast and ovarian cancer. Pink represents the stargazer lily, the official flower of the Kentucky Oaks, as well as Churchill Downs’s advocacy and fundraising efforts for women’s health issues.
Celebrating In Style
“I will never forget a hat that one of the ladies made herself from a pink bra. It was one of her favorite bras she could no longer wear,” said Gina.
As a lifelong fan of the Derby, Gina knew she needed a winning outfit as well. It didn’t take long to find a dress she loved.
“My hat was next and the shoes were the worst. I had neutral pumps, but you can’t walk on the track with heels and they told us to bring rain boots, so I wore those. Each of us received a gift bag and inside was a pair of pink sandals! Woohoo!”
For Gina, her favorite part of the day was walking onto the track. “The view [from Churchill Downs] was amazing!” she described. “We could see the horses very easily.”
Gina described her time at the Derby as “a VIP experience.” After the march, she and the other participants continued to enjoy the spectacular and historic views alongside signature Kentucky Derby beverages like Mint Juleps and Kentucky Oaks Lilies in the exclusive Turf Suite, situated just past the final turn behind Winner’s Circle.
The VIP treatment was certainly well-deserved. For Gina, the last three years had been anything but normal – coronavirus pandemic aside.
Gina’s journey started when her cat jumped onto her breast, causing immediate pain in that area. She “felt a very small lump” and scheduled a consultation with her OBGYN. Although she could feel the lump, it didn’t appear on the mammogram 3D, so she had an ultrasound where a biopsy was sampled.
On February 18, 2020, she was grocery shopping when she received the life-altering call from Lincoln Center. As she stood in the grocery store as she did hundreds of times before she learned she had invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) at overlapping sites.
IDC, the most common type of breast cancer, make up about 8 in 10 cases. According to Cancer.org, “IDC starts in the cells that line a milk duct in the breast. From there, the cancer breaks through the wall of the duct, and grows into the nearby breast tissues. At this point, it may be able to spread to other parts of the body through the lymph system and bloodstream.”
Gina, who had just celebrated her 55th birthday, recalled, “I felt like all the air had been sucked out of my lungs and my chest was a huge gaping hole. Why me? I have always advocated and volunteered in BCA activities? Why? How am I going to tell my husband? We had just lost his father to cancer in September.”
Soon, she found herself in a whirlwind of appointments, testing, and treatments.
“After [my] oncotype score results came in, Grade 3 was diagnosed.”
Since the original diagnosis, the tumor had doubled in size and consisted mostly of necrotic tissue. It was growing quickly and feeding upon itself and progesterone, increasing the cancer’s aggressive progression. As a result, Gina received an oncotype score of 38, meaning her cancer had a 38% probability of returning.
With that probability in mind, Gina clarified that she isn’t in remission. “I worked up the courage to ask Dr. Hashmi if I could declare myself a Survivor last October. I have to finish the 10 years of aromatase inhibitors, then five years after that if no cancer returns, I am a survivor.”
Challenges and Support
Gina received treatment at the Cotton O’Neil Cancer Center in Topeka. “We have the best team at the Cancer Center! The staff is absolutely amazing. Their genuine kindness and level of care is above and beyond every day. This includes the registrars, the PCT’s, nurses, APRN’s and of course the oncologists.”
This support proved invaluable to Gina during the grueling treatment process. For four months, she underwent A/C Adriamycin/Cyclophosphamide, often referred to as the Red Devil for its bright red color, blister-causing properties, and grueling side effects including hair loss, diminished bone marrow density, nausea, and mouth sores. Following that round of treatment, Gina underwent daily radiation for six weeks.
Of course, the onset of the pandemic only made things more complex and overwhelming.
“COVID was one of the biggest obstacles. I also started having a rash with the chemo. My oncologist wanted to lower the dose or skip treatments, but I was determined to push through. I don’t want to go through this again.”
Besides the pandemic, Gina noted post-chemo infusions were among her biggest challenges due to the nausea and lack of energy.
“I also was very emotional about losing my long hair.”
When the time came, Gina had her hairdresser cut and shave her hair to send to Children with Hair Loss. With Gina’s donation, the nonprofit organization made two wigs and sent Gina photos of the girls who received them.
Education and Reflection
Gina never expected she would have to endure the numerous challenges like those she experienced because of her cancer diagnosis. However, having a robust support system made a big difference.
“My staff supported me every day even on those days where I didn’t think I could take one more step or get up from my chair, they were there to help me and encourage me. My family was behind me every step of the way. My husband was my rock. It definitely brought us closer together.”
That support proved invaluable for Gina, who shared that the best way to support a loved one with cancer is “just to be there. Be available to listen. My best friend sent me a card with an encouraging message or a silly rhyme every day. Can you believe that? No fail every day.”
Naturally, Gina’s diagnosis spurred a significant deal of reflection.
”My biggest revelation was that it was ok to be weak. I kept pushing myself to keep working and doing all of my other activities. I would not really share how I was actually feeling or the amount of pain I was in. One day I had a huge breakdown because I received another phone call about another test that I had to get done. I was literally sobbing at the handwashing sink. It’s like the cancer takes over your person life. Thank goodness Jeannette [my best friend] was here and gave me a huge hug and told me it was going to be all right.”
The Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade might be over, but Gina continues to find ways to celebrate every day. She advises anyone diagnosed with cancer “to educate yourself! Research your cancer, your side effects, any testing that should be done, and the medications you’ll be taking. Don’t be afraid to speak out any time you feel that something is not right!”
To enter as a participant or nominate someone you know for the 2024 Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade, visit the Kentucky Derby’s website and sign up for parade alerts.