Grayson Lawson, 8, has never been to the Kentucky Oaks nor stepped foot on the track at Churchill Downs. Neither has Lindsay Payne, 14.
On Friday, the girls will do both when they participate in the Survivors Parade presented by Kroger, an honor given to 138 female cancer survivors including, for the first time, two children.
“We’re the first kids that get to walk around the track in the parade,” said Lindsay, who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 2. “I’m pretty excited.”
Grayson is, too. “My Aunt Dee Dee, she wrote a story about me (as part of the parade’s nomination process) and I found out I was in the parade. It makes me feel special.”
That’s always been the point.
Prior to 2012, the Survivors Parade served as an inspiring way to honor breast cancer survivors on Oaks. The day carries a “ladies first” theme anyway, so the philanthropic addition of the procession became instantly popular with attendees. But then the Churchill Downs marketing started to receive requests to celebrate any woman who has fought the disease, regardless of type.
“When our female fans told us that cancer affects their lives in many different ways, we listened and responded with an opportunity for all of our fans to get involved in supporting the research and prevention efforts of the many types of cancers that need our attention,” said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery.
In addition to the Survivors Parade and the pink-attire encouraged dress code, for every person in attendance on Oaks, Churchill Downs will donate $1 to Stand Up To Cancer, an organization that raises awareness and funds for research. “We think this is a really strong fit as Stand Up To Cancer seeks to accelerate the development of new cancer treatments and our exciting day of racing can help put them on the fast track to do just that,” Flanery said.
The track will also donate $1 from each sale of the Oaks Lily, the official drink of the Kentucky Oaks, to Horses and Hope. Founded in 2008 by Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear and the Kentucky Cancer Program, Horses and Hope helps provide breast cancer awareness, education and early detection and treatment referral in Kentucky’s horse racing industry.
Earlier this week, Grayson and Lindsay met for the first time at Nanz & Kraft in St. Matthews, where they posed for photos with The Voice-Tribune while standing in front of dozens of blooming lilies, the official flower of the Kentucky Oaks. Grayson, a third grader from Spencer County Elementary, giggled and chatted easily as she sat in the sparkly pink dress she’ll wear Friday.
“We’ve been blessed,” said her mother Donna Lawson, as she watched her young daughter play with a fresh rose. “We did not have to go through any type of treatment (once the cancerous tumors were removed).”
“I’m happy I’m cancer free,” Grayson said.
Lindsay’s mom, Becky Bundy, recalled how her daughter underwent chemotherapy, full body radiation, a relapse and then a transplant. “We looked at it as, OK there’s the problem and there’s the solution. The two other kids who were going through the same thing didn’t survive. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been upset.”
Lindsay is now cancer free, but she must go back for regular check ups. The treatments stunted her growth and have affected her hair, something her Jeffersonville High School classmates have noticed.
“At school people say stuff to me because I’m so short; I’m 4-feet-11 and a half. They make fun of my hair, too,” the ninth grader said quietly. “I usually get upset and mad. I try to stop them. Some of my friends will tell them I had cancer. There’s people who say, ‘She’s short and bald,’ but they don’t know me.”
Becky Bundy sat up in her chair. “Her friends defend her pretty good. Not everybody’s affected (by cancer) the same. I think what people forget is this is her life.”
Donna Lawson wiped away tears as she listened to the mother and daughter sitting across the table. “Why are you crying, Mom?” Grayson asked.
“Because it’s really hard to hear,” Donna Lawson replied.
Grayson’s eyes lit up and she scooted nearer to Lindsay. “Do you want to be my friend? Maybe we could walk in the parade together. … You know, if we fight cancer together, we can win – yay!”
“Sure,” Lindsay said. “I’ll be your friend.”