John Theurer's 10th Annual Life and Liberty Event Brings Cancer Survivors Together to Celebrate

From an inaugural gathering in 2009 that attracted approximately 700 people, the Life and Liberty event has grown in size each year, with more than 4,000 patients in attendance at last September’s celebration. Organizers said about 6,000 were there this year.

Attendees at the Life and Liberty event paint their names on a mural that will be displayed at John Theurer Cancer Center for the next year.

“Keep on swimming.”

So advised the T-shirts that cancer survivor Maricely Barnett and her family and friends wore during the 10th annual Life and Liberty Celebration, a Sept. 14 event hosted by John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center to support its oncology community.

“Just keep swimming — don’t let anything stop you,” Barnett, a lung cancer survivor who considers John Theurer her “second home,” said in explaining the tagline. The Union resident described the half a dozen people wearing the shirts as her “village” and the thousands of attendees at the event as “a family, united by one disease.” The event at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford was open to all Hackensack Meridian Health patients, survivors, families, caregivers and dedicated health care staff who have played important roles in their journeys.

“We might not know these people,” Barnett said, “but we know why they’re here.”

According to Bob Garrett, co-CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health Network, people attend every year to celebrate survivorship and generate inspiration and support for those working their way through treatment or recovery. He noted the “camaraderie, survivorship and optimism” he could see in the eyes and smiles of those present, saying in a speech to the crowd: “It’s all about you tonight.”

“Look to your left and right, and you will see people (who were treated for cancer) two decades ago, and they’re here celebrating, as you will be 20 years from now,” added Andrew Pecora, M.D., chief innovation officer, a professor and vice president of cancer services at John Theurer. “We will never give up until we have a 100 percent survival rate.”

From an inaugural gathering in 2009 that attracted approximately 700 people, the Life and Liberty event has grown in size each year, with more than 4,000 patients in attendance at last September’s celebration. Organizers said about 6,000 were there this year.

The day featured activities for adults and children, with a Bruce Springsteen Tribute Band — Tramps Like Us — setting the tone. Other highlights included a performance by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players; interactive workshops; arts and crafts; caricaturists; lawn games; inflatable attractions for children; dinner; and fireworks. Cancer advocacy organizations — including breast cancer support group Tennis for Life and Project Purple, which offers financial aid and care packages to people with pancreatic cancer and funds research — were on hand to provide information about their services for all aspects of cancer care, support and survivorship.

Those in attendance got into the spirit of the event, relaxing on the stadium’s football field as children rolled around and did cartwheels on the turf. Indoors, people gathered information at the advocacy booths, painted their names onto a commemorative mural and laughed as a costumed “master paper cutter” created animal shapes upon request.

The event was the brainchild of Andre Goy, M.D., chairman and director of John Theurer and chief of its lymphoma division.

“I treated a patient with lymphoma who was a curator at the Statue of Liberty at the time, and at the end of treatment, she was very happy and wanted to see what she could do for us,” Goy recalled. “I had the idea of doing something at the Statue of Liberty for cancer survivors, because it’s a wonderful place and a great symbol of freedom, of starting a new life, and there are as many cancer survivors in the U.S. as immigrants who went to Ellis Island. I wanted to create an event based on patients and organized and run by patients that would allow them to celebrate their journeys, cross-pollinate their stories and encourage each other.”

The event has proven to be a good way to make those affected feel included in a social setting, he said, and one that creates a community that continues to deepen as attendees keep in touch with each other.

“It’s part of our philosophy to bring life into this experience (of cancer),” Goy said, adding that one of the center’s other strategies is teaching patients to cook. “It’s the best way to tell a patient you believe in their future without telling them,” he said.

In addressing the audience at the event, Goy expressed excitement about the advances being made in cancer treatment, and John Theurer Cancer Center’s part in them.

He described Theurer as the largest cancer program in New Jersey and noted that it has expanded to include 25 locations and is involved in more than 400 clinical trials. In fact, he said, the center was involved in studies that led to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s first approval of a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy, Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel), and is currently the only center in the state that gives the treatment, as well as a second such therapy approved later, Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel). Another innovation, Goy said, is the center’s program that matches medical students with families, whom they visit at home to encourage lifestyle changes aimed at preventing cancer.

Portia Lowery, of Newark, attended the Life and Liberty event for the first time this year.

The 45-year-old, who in June received a diagnosis of stage 3 cancer in her right breast and lymph nodes, had recently undergone her fourth chemotherapy infusion and was feeling sick and fatigued. Still, she was smiling.

“I should be in bed, but I was asked to come out, so I said, ‘I will be there at this event,’” Lowery said. “It’s for people with various types of cancers, but you still feel like it’s a home and a beginning, and that we’re in this fight together. You see a lot of supporters and a lot of survivors. It’s just a friendly environment and a family.”

Peter O’Rourke, who works in the regulatory area supporting clinical trials at John Theurer, saw the event, like his job, as “a big community effort.”

“I think the event is great,” he said. “I haven’t experienced cancer, but my mother is a survivor, and I can only imagine that this would be something great for her. It’s a celebration: You’re alive — let’s do this!”