Felicia O'Bryan, 49, was not upset last Friday when threatening thunderstorms delayed her participation in the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade presented by Kroger. Although the 138 cancer survivors had already boarded the buses that would shuttle them from the Churchill Downs grandstand to the backside of the track, O'Bryan took the delay in stride and found delight in the fact that the bus she was forced to wait out the storm in was air-conditioned. It is this positive attitude that led her daughter Danielle Strange, 30, to nominate O'Bryan to participate in the parade that honors women who have fought or are still fighting cancer.
"It was a rough time for all of us," said Strange. "She was so strong. She seemed so strong all of the time."
Nine months after a routine mammogram showed no problems, O'Bryan, a dispatcher at Louisville's LG&E, awoke to a sharp pain in her chest and discovered a lump the size of a peach seed in her breast. Assuming it was likely nothing, O'Bryan went about her business. A few days later, she discovered another lump. This one was under her arm. At this point, O'Bryan decided she needed to return to her doctor where she underwent another mammogram and ultimately a biopsy. She confided in Strange who was a nursing student at Spencerian College. Soon after, O'Bryan was diagnosed with stage 3 of a fast growing form of breast cancer.
"It was September 8, 2010 when I got that phone call," recalls O'Bryan. "I had my meltdown and then said, ‘now we need to do something about it.’"
Over the course of the next five months, O'Bryan underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy treatments followed by a double mastectomy, and nearly a month of daily radiation treatments. Never the quitter, O'Bryan continued to work her job at LG&E throughout her treatments, taking radiation treatments during her lunch breaks.
"The more normal stuff I could do, the more normal I would feel," reasoned O'Bryan.
It is now nearly 10 months after O'Bryan finished her treatments. She continues to receive quarterly check-ups, but remains cancer free.
"Once you're diagnosed, you're put in this class and people come out of the woodwork," O'Bryan said. "It's like a club. A club you don't want to be a member of."
It was this club that gathered on the Churchill Downs racetrack Friday before a crowd of 112,552, just before the 138th running of the Kentucky Oaks. Nominations for female cancer survivors were accepted during one week in March. The top 138 vote-getters won tickets for themselves and a guest to attend the 2012 Kentucky Oaks and participate in the Survivors Parade which began at the backside and culminated in the paddock just prior to the race.
"Last year we watched the Oaks and saw the Survivors Parade," Strange said. It was at this moment that Strange realized she’d have to nominate her mother to participate in the parade the following year. "I felt like she deserved it; something to celebrate that she made it through."
Although O'Bryan was unaware that Strange had nominated her for the parade, she was touched when Strange revealed it to her.
"I felt honored, but not deserving," O'Bryan started. "I've always thought it would be exciting to do."
Excitement was what O'Bryan and Strange got when they stepped upon the Churchill Downs track and began to lead the 138 survivors to the paddock. Since the survivors were organized into groups according to years of survival, with less than a year under her belt, O'Bryan was grouped in the front. It was an event the two would like to continue to be a part of, something to mark the milestones O'Bryan will reach as a survivor.
"The response from the crowd was so emotional," O'Bryan said. "I almost felt like I was the only one out there. When I looked up in the crowd of people they were all clapping...some were crying...some were cheering and giving the thumbs up...some were waving. I think I had a permanent smile on my face the whole time!"
"I held back my emotions because my mom was happy and having a good time and I felt that warmth come over me and all the other women cheering," Strange recalled. “It was a surreal moment. It was a good moment."
Photo: Felicia O'Bryan