This event, now in its ninth year, is sponsored by the John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center. It celebrates survivorship, while also generating inspiration and support to those in the cancer community who are still in treatment or recovery.
"When you're in the fight [against cancer], you feel so alone,” said Judith Mills, an attendee whose mother passed away from breast cancer this year. “But here, when you see so many people, it gives you a feeling of comfort.”
The Human Connection
Making human connections is what the day is all about, says Andre Goy, M.D., MS, chairman and director of the John Theurer Cancer Center and chief of the Division of Lymphoma. “We hope that it energizes patients to share their stories, to support each other and to engage in the fight. Part of the fight is being human, being social and talking about your stories. The positive energy is palpable. And there is a lot of hugging.”
Teens waved at cameras that projected them onto the jumbotron while children bounced through inflatable obstacle courses. Others acquired temporary airbrush tattoos and free sweatshirts, and posed with a living Statue of Liberty. Some Giants fans had their dreams come true as they ran across the stadium field kicking footballs through the goalposts.
“It’s a way for people to let go of their worries and concerns for a few hours and be surrounded by others who have survived, and to see that there is hope,” said Ihor S. Sawczuk, M.D., FACS, president of Hackensack University Medical Center.
Trisha Coote, a breast cancer and ovarian cancer survivor, proudly posed for a picture with her goddaughter Shoshauna Wallace.
“I survived ovarian cancer,” she exclaimed. “I had it in 2015, and I’m still here!”
“When you think about people who come to Celebrating Life and Liberty year after year, there’s something probably spiritual to them about this,” said Andrew L. Pecora, M.D., FACP, CPE, chief innovations officer, Hackensack Meridian Health, and president of Physician Services. “They’re not just coming to an event. They’re celebrating the fact that they have survived, and they are sharing their experiences with others.”
“Their courage and perseverance inspires us,” Robert C. Garrett, FACHE, co-chief executive officer of Hackensack Meridian Health, added. “When I started in the field, children were dying from leukemia at the rate of 70 to 80 percent, and today there is a 70 to 80 percent survival rate. The landscape of survival has changed so much.
“For me it’s a little personal this year,” Garrett continued. “My aunt had ovarian cancer. She was treated at the John Theurer Cancer Center and they prolonged her life for 10 years. She welcomed three grandchildren into the world, she saw her son get married. I’m so grateful to the team at the cancer center for what they are able to do.”
An Opportunity to Learn
Garrett and other leaders from the John Theurer Cancer Center at the Hackensack University Medical Center and the overarching Hackensack Meridian Health system addressed the crowd briefly, thanking them for allowing the hospital system to be a part of their cancer journey. They also thanked the medical staff at the cancer center, who contributed to the continued survival of many of the attendees.
The leaders also shared news of some developments that would help improve their care in the future, including a partnership with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a partnership with Georgetown University which will allow them become a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.
They also announced their plan to build a new tower at Hackensack University Medical Center with 24 new operating rooms, 50 surgical beds in an intensive care unit and 150 single-patient rooms, many of which will be dedicated to patients with cancer. They are hoping to break ground in the first quarter of 2018. The tower will take about five years to build.
There was an educational element to the Celebrating Life and Liberty event as well. Fifteen advocacy organizations were invited to participate, offering information and resources to attendees.
“We hope that patients and their families stop by the advocacy groups and learn something new, whether it is about nutrition, lifestyle change, access to services you might need and didn’t know that you could access … getting everybody together who service people with cancer is always a good thing,” said Sawczuk.
Big Shot Rounds Out the Fun with a Bang
Excitement grew as Mike DelGuidice and his Billy Joel tribute band, Big Shot, took the stage. DelGuidice’s success story is a tribute to the notion that perseverance can help your dreams can come true. Billy Joel came to one of DelGuidice’s shows in 2013 and liked his work so much that he hired him to tour with his band. You can now see DelGuidice on stage at Madison Square Garden, singing with his idol, as well as in concerts on the road. DelGuidice played to the crowd with fan favorites like “Movin’ Out.”
Attendees Howard and Mary Goldman enjoyed dancing to the music. "We dance our way through life," Mary said. "You have choices. We choose to dance."