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Thousands Celebrate Cancer Survivorship at Annual Life and Liberty Event

Patients and survivors shared messages of hope and enjoyed an evening of fun at the 11th annual celebration sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health. 
BY Katie Kosko
PUBLISHED September 16, 2019
When Luther Engler received a diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma in 2007, he and his wife, Nancy, each went online to learn more about the disease. What they saw frightened them—a 10-year survival rate of about 5%-10%.

Engler never imagined that he would be alive 12 years later. “I’m part of that 10% of people in the world,” said the 77-year-old of Nutley, New Jersey, who has been in remission since 2008.

The Englers were among a crowd of roughly 6,000 people who attended the 11th annual Celebrating Life and Liberty event held Sept. 13 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and sponsored by Hackensack Meridian Health.

From left: Robert C. Garrett, FACHE, CEO, Hackensack Meridian Health; Helena Theurer; Dr. Goy; and Helen Cunning, north regional president and chief development officer, Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation.

Cancer survivors, patients and their families, as well as health care professionals from John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center joined as one community to share stories of hope and inspiration. “Cancer wants to conquer your body, mind and soul,” said Engler, who has attended the event for the last 10 years. “And with all the people here, there is a spirit of hope, and with this hope it feels good and gives you strength.”

The event was brought to life by Andre Goy, MD, MS, chairman and executive director, Lymphoma Division chief, John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center, who was also one of the oncologists to treat Engler in a clinical trial at the cancer center.

The inspiration came from a patient who worked as a curator at the Statue of Liberty. The idea of liberty resonated with Goy because of his belief that patients should be liberated from cancer. That first event was held on Ellis Island with 700 people in attendance. Eleven years later, the event has outgrown that space with thousands who now attend—a testament to the research and innovative treatments that are keeping more and more people with cancer alive.

“It’s a great satisfaction to see the event growing so well and to see the same feel that the original event had,” Goy said. “People enjoy each other and share their stories very openly because it’s an event for cancer survivors and patients all sharing their stories on how you adjust your life, how you recover, and how you overcome everything.”

Positivity in the Face of Cancer
A giant inflatable Statue of Liberty stood tall among the crowd as people mingled with one another, took selfies on the field, had their faces painted and signed their names to a large mural that will be displayed at the cancer center—Goy standing on a chair to write his message at the very top, “You All Rock.”

The New York BeeGees Tribute Band and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players performed on a stage set up in the middle of the field. While some watched from the open field on the cool September night, others dined across the way, enjoying the performances from a big screen.

“I love this event,” said Lesley Kittler, 40, of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. “To be here and see everyone. You’re celebrating so many wonderful people—all the people that have cancer, their caregivers, and the doctors and nurses are here. It uplifts your spirits.”

Kittler, who recently celebrated her first wedding anniversary in August, learned of her cancer after spotting a lump on the top of her left foot in October 2014. An MRI revealed synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects the soft tissue and is most often seen in adolescents and young adults. Kittler received chemotherapy and radiation, before having the tumor removed. To have better quality of life, Kittler chose to amputate her left leg. However, the sarcoma metastasized to her groin and lungs. She received immunotherapy—a combination of nivolumab (Opdivo) and ipilimumab (Yervoy). Earlier this year, she learned that the immunotherapy was no longer working and underwent surgery in May to remove what was in her lungs and groin. “I feel like I don’t let the cancer win because I don’t want to be a statistic,” Kittler said of her stage 4 metastatic lung cancer diagnosis. “I want to be an exception to the rule.”

Pillar of Strength
Like Engler, Kittler agreed that the highlight of the Life and Liberty event is its feeling of connection. “You can share your story and you may be able to help someone or give them a pointer,” Kittler said.

Also on site to offer guidance to patients and survivors were about a dozen different cancer advocacy organizations and pharmaceutical representatives that handed out information about their services. Families were lined up to talk with the groups, as well as take pictures in a nearby photobooth.

It’s about the support system, explained Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, who was on hand throughout the night. “Although technology and treatment have gotten more effective, the support system will always be the glue that keeps it together,” he said.

In May, John Theurer Cancer Center became a member of the National Cancer Institute-designated Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center Consortium. The prestigious move will allow for more clinical trials and attract top researchers to the cancer center, Garrett said.

In addition, the Center for Discovery and Innovation opened this year, which will support groundbreaking research in 3 key areas—multiple myeloma, cancer and infectious diseases, and regenerative medicine. 
 
“As part of our mission, this is looking at cancer from the entire spectrum,” Goy said. “From pre-cancer or early diagnosis to long-term survivorship, as well as how you recover in your personal life, emotionally and professionally.”

Everyone’s story of recovery is different, explained Goy. Kittler enjoys spending her time with her husband, family, friends and wants to live to watch her nephew grow up.

Engler and his wife go dancing sometimes up to five times a week and take two cruises a year.

“When you get that cancer diagnosis, everything goes black until you start moving again,” Nancy said. “And you need someone to direct you how to move.” They found that positive direction in their team at John Theurer.

For Goy, interacting with current and former patients, like Engler, is what he most enjoys about the event. “It’s a picture of life,” he said. “The art of medicine is understanding the patient and the dynamics of the family, then you bring the technology in. When you bring all of this together, I think it’s a great recipe.”

Photos: Roy Groething Photography
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