LEXINGTON, Ky (6/20/13) – They're called 'survival bracelets,' intricately woven from colorful paracord. For those who frequently wear them — hikers, mountain climbers, even military personnel — the bracelets represent a lifeline, a way to easily carry a long length of rope that could come in handy in emergency situations.
For sisters Brittany and Jessica Lyden, though, these bracelets have taken on a whole new meaning: a way to honor their late father, Mike Lyden, who died of stage IV lung cancer in 2008, while raising awareness for lung cancer at the same time.
Known as "Iron Mike" for his continued toughness and determination in the face of his disease, Lyden served as the University of Kentucky's diving coach from 1993 until his death. Jessica, the oldest, was 17 at the time, while youngest sibling Brittany was only 10 years old (their brother, Jack, was 15).
Though Lyden presented no symptoms other than a persistent cough, he was diagnosed with stage IV cancer with metastasis to the brain by Dr. Timothy Mullett, UK cardiothoracic surgeon. He received treatment from UK Markey Cancer Center oncologist Dr. Susanne Arnold and lived two and a half years after his diagnosis — two full years beyond his initial prognosis.
"It was shocking, because he was so healthy and active," said Jessica, now 22, and a graduate research assistant to Mullett here at UK. "And he never smoked a day in his life."
Lung cancer is often described as an "invisible disease" because many patients — like Mike — are asymptomatic until the cancer is in an advanced stage and has spread to other areas of the body, where it becomes difficult to treat. Lung cancer kills nearly twice as many women as breast cancer, and it is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women in the U.S. Despite this, lung cancer receives proportionately less government funding per death than other types of cancer.
In recent years, the Lydens had been trying to think of a way to give back to the UK Markey Cancer Center and raise lung cancer awareness. After participating in a Komen event and noticing the proliferation of pink merchandise, the sisters hit upon an idea for their fundraising — homemade bracelets featuring a white ribbon to represent lung cancer.
Joining the Lydens in their endeavor is Brittany's friend Andrea George, a 14-year-old fellow student at Lexington Catholic High School. After a car accident two years ago, Andrea has experienced multiple stays in a hospital setting to determine the cause of her continued pain and migraines, including a stay at the Cleveland Clinic. While there, Andrea stayed on the same floor as many of the pediatric cancer patients, and that experience inspired her to give back to those affected by cancer in whatever way she could.
In January, Brittany and Andrea taught themselves to make the survival bracelets by watching a how-to video on YouTube. Since then the girls get together on a regular basis to make the jewelry. While they initially picked blue cord with a white ribbon, they soon expanded their selection.
"People began asking us to make the bracelets in different colors, to represent the different cancers," Brittany said. "They would ask 'Do you have any in teal?' or green, or burgundy, because they knew someone who had been affected by that cancer."
The sisters approached Mullett — who also is a longtime friend of the family — and Trish Jaracz from the Markey Cancer Foundation with their bracelet idea. They loved the idea, and Jaracz helped them set up the Mike Lyden Patient Support Fund through the Foundation.
“The young ladies were so passionate and genuine about the idea, it was amazing," Mullett said. "After they told me about the bracelets and showed me some of the samples, it seemed like such a wonderful tool to raise awareness for cancer in general. Of course, the ability to honor their father and make a contribution by increasing awareness of lung cancer resonates with me."
Mullett, who himself balances a medical and military career, said the significance of the bracelets also struck a chord in him.
"As a colonel in the Army Medical Corps, we have always used these camouflaged bracelets as a survival tool," Mullett said. "The imagery of having a ‘survival tool’ that will lead to increased awareness of cancer and help to improve survival from this disease is perfect.”
The girls charge $7 per bracelet, and all net proceeds will go toward the Mike Lyden Patient Support Fund. To date, they have raised more than $1,000 for the fund and plan to continue fulfilling requests throughout the year. The Lydens have set up a Facebook page to help promote their fundraising.
Emily Lyden, mother to Jessica and Brittany, says the experience of creating the survival bracelets has been cathartic for the family.
"Brittany was only 10 when Mike passed, but now that she's older she's figured out a great way to help the cause," Emily said. "I'm extremely proud of both of them — this entire project has been their doing, from start to finish."
Jessica, a recent graduate of Duke University, is also using her experience and passion to fuel her career. She served as an assistant to Mullett during her break after college, and spent much of her time working on the Lung Cancer Screening Program, a collaboration between the UK Markey Cancer Center and Norton Cancer Institute to utilize CT scans as a means of lung cancer screenings. In the fall, Jessica will pursue her medical degree at Duke University School of Medicine.
"I've wanted to pursue a medical career since I was very young and the experience we went through with my dad's illness and passing has only strengthened that dream," Jessica said. "I hope that one day as a physician, I will be able to confidently tell patients, 'We have a cure, and you will never have to worry about cancer again.' That may not be a reality for every type of cancer, but we can't stop working toward that goal."
Information provided by Allison Perry
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