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Late this afternoon, Shelby County resident Lynn Whitehouse, proudly wearing pink, will take a walk with her husband, Darrin, by her side, but it won’t be just any old stroll.
Whitehouse will be surrounded by hundreds of others as part of the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Parade just before the running of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.
And to Whitehouse, this slow walk may seem the end of a marathon, because it has taken her a grueling year to accomplish.
The night before the mini marathon during last year’s Kentucky Derby Festival, Whitehouse was staying at the Galt House in Louisville, getting ready for the race, when she felt a lump in her breast.
“I didn’t have my usual bath pouf with me,” Whitehouse says. “While showering, I was scrubbing under my arms, and I felt a lump.
“I didn’t tell anyone and went ahead and ran the race. I didn’t think much of it. Breast cancer doesn’t run in my family.”
But the following Monday she did call her gynecologist for an immediate appointment.
The news was not what anyone expected.
She did have breast cancer. The lump was the size of a gumball, and she also learned she had an extremely rare and aggressive type of cancer called triple negative.
The treatment was not simple.
“Fortunately, I found it early, and it was in stage one,” she says. “Because my cancer was an aggressive type, they recommended a bilateral mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and six months of chemotherapy.”
At the time of her diagnosis, Whitehouse was 36 years old and, she says, in the best shape of her life, and she continued to work her job as an industrial hygienist and manager for the state the entire time, with her co-workers donating their work time so she could get her treatments and go to appointments.
“I attribute my handling of this to God’s good graces first of all, but I was in the best physical shape I have ever been in,” says Whitehouse, who had competed in numerous road races before the diagnosis. “I was working out regularly, eating right, I was teaching aerobics, and I was running.
“I think being in very good physical shape helped me handle the chemo.”
She says the chemo didn’t make her sick, but it did make her white-blood-cell count go down. The cure for that was a shot – which did make her ill.
“I was sick for about 36 hours, then the fog would lift, and I’d go right back to work,” says Whitehouse, who also is the mother of a young son, Casey, and daughter, Lindsey.
She also received support from her mother, Linda Casey, her sisters, Lora and Lona, and girlfriends “who would go to the chemo treatments with me.”
And through her ordeal, she also maintained a bit of a sense of humor. “I have a T-shirt that reads ‘Yeah they’re fake – my real ones tried to kill me,’” she says with a laugh. “I was more upset about losing my hair – but I had a great wig.”
She says the advice she offers women is to check themselves monthly for lumps. “I always joked I was so flat-chested, if I had a lump I would see it,” she says. “Do your monthly checks and get yearly mammograms.
“Several months ago it was in the news that mammograms are not that important. That is just crazy! That information must be coming from the insurance companies.”
The Oaks, the Derby’s companion event for 3-year-old fillies, is featuring a “Ladies First” theme with an involvement and a commitment to the Susan G. Komen ForThe Cure foundation.
Churchill Downs Inc. will donate $1 to the foundation for every person who attends The Oaks, and last year that generated more than $104,000 for breast cancer research, education, advocacy and community support.
And a select group of breast cancer survivors will participate in the walk to raise awareness to the whole day.
But for Whitehouse, her ordeal and her recovery may be signified by her participation in something even more remarkable.
Last Saturday, it came full circle, so to speak, when she returned to Louisville, laced up her sneakers and once again ran the 13.1 miles of the mini marathon.
“Running the mini marathon this year showed me that despite everything that has happened over the past year, I can still do anything I put my mind to,” she says,
“It's all about having the right attitude, no matter what life brings you.”