For 21 years, prostate cancer survivor Lane McKinney has looked forward to the annual Christmas party at the Cancer Center at Memorial Hermann Northeast. The gathering has become an annual ritual that borders on superstition for McKinney, because it’s his chance to renew old friendships, and again say thanks to the “compassionate” staff that has helped him and others cope with the disease over the years.
McKinney also looks forward to getting the special Christmas ornament the Cancer Center gives to every survivor who attends the party. For the survivors, the ornament serves as a marker of sorts, signifying another year of life. Each party has its own unique Christmas tree ornament. This year, about 125 survivors attended the party.
“It’s a symbol of their survivorship,” said Gayle Bratsakis, CTR Program Coordinator for the Cancer Registry at the Center. Bratsakis has worked at the Center for 28 years and coordinates the annual event that allows her, and other staff, to reconnect with the patients they’ve treated.
Diagnosed in 1996 at age 43, McKinney received his first invitation later that same year to attend the Christmas party, held annually since the Cancer Center opened its doors in 1989.
“I went to the party and met Santa Claus and they gave all the survivors a Christmas ornament,” said McKinney, regarding the first party he attended. “That was pretty cool. I’ve gone every year since then. After a couple years, I had several (ornaments), so I purchased a special tree. When I started hanging them on the tree it got to the point where I got kind of superstitious and I’d say to myself ‘I’ve got to go get my ornament. I can’t miss one,'” McKinney continued referencing a competition he had with another survivor for the most ornaments. “My wife and I would start to joke about it and she would ask ‘are you going to set up your cancer tree this year?’ and I said, ‘let’s find another name for that.’ So, now we call it my Tree of Life.”
Recently, McKinney received his 21st ornament commemorating his survivor’s journey. He attributes his never-give-up attitude to the staff at the Cancer Center, which is accredited as a Community Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Program by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. Daily, the Cancer Center at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital brings together world-class skill, leading-edge technology and the most modern care available.
“They made everything so easy for me,” McKinney said about the Cancer Center staff. “They put you at ease, but I watched how they treated everybody else. The care and compassion that they have is amazing. There’s something about the Cancer Center. They wear their compassion right out front. It definitely made my journey a lot easier.”
“How can anybody who deals with this day in and day out keep that attitude,” McKinney asked rhetorically about Bratsakis. “She always has time for me. She’s just a wonderful person. I see her once a year at the party and I look forward to it. I love her.”
McKinney is introspective about his journey as a survivor. He says he doesn’t worry about the “trivial stuff” in life anymore. Along the way, he has experienced a couple of false alarms like a scare in 2006 when a PSA test revealed he had elevated levels, and in 2012, when a lesion found on his pancreas raised initial fears of pancreatic cancer. He even wrote a pensive ballad, “Even the Rooms Look Different,” about his journey that provides hope to other survivors.
“I know there are more important things in life,” said McKinney. “I also know that every day above ground is a good day. I still live with it every day. One of the messages I try to give in the song is, ‘I’m not going to give up. I know I’m going to win the race.’ That sounds all brave and strong, but the truth is, there were days when I did want to give up. Sometimes I just got tired of it.”
But McKinney continues to fight because of “life” and wanting to be here for his wife and son.
“Giving up is the easy way out,” said McKinney. “It’s sometimes harder to just keep going. Put one foot in front of the other and keep going. That’s what I do. I’m still here.”