Celebrating Life: Hats & Horses Bring Inspiration to Local Breast Cancer Survivor

By Sylvia Dunnavant Hines
Staff Writer

When you think about breast cancer, hope and courage you might not think about horses. Yet, for 12-year breast cancer survivor, Karla Baptiste, horses were a sign of hope and courage as she was selected to participate in the Kentucky Oaks Breast and Ovarian Cancer Parade.

“Participating in the parade was such an inspiring and encouraging event. I think the most significant thing for me was just seeing so many women that made the journey to the Kentucky Oaks who might not be with us next year,” said Baptiste. “You could tell that it was really a big deal for them to come and have this experience. It was such a joy to meet so many women that have been surviving. They all looked amazing dressed in their pink. They might not feel the best, but they were there and celebrating life. It was awesome.”

Baptiste comes from a family of milliners. Both her grandmother and her aunt were hat makers. As a little girl, she would grab her mother’s church hat and sit in front of the television and watch the Kentucky Derby. “There were so many beautiful hats at the Kentucky Oaks; I knew that if my grandmother was alive, she would have enjoyed it. I could not help but think about her as I walked across the famous grounds of the Churchill Downs. “For years, Baptiste said she had marked attending the Kentucky Derby on her bucket list. As other things began to take precedence in her life, she would just put it off to the next year.

This year, it became an encouraging event the Celebrating Life Foundation nominated her to participate many women Kentucky Oaks Breast and Ovarian Cancer Parade. She was selected to join 144 other survivors to strut her stuff at Churchill Downs. The Celebrating Life Foundation is a non-profit organization devoted to making cancer powerless by educating, encouraging and empowering the African American community, women of color and the medically underserviced about the risks of breast cancer.

As a participant, Baptiste received two tickets to the Kentucky Oaks and the opportunity to be in the parade with other survivors. She extended her extra ticket to a local one-year breast cancer survivor, Vickie Hicks, who also enjoyed the experience. “The most surprising part of participating in the parade was that we were down in the Winner’s Circle and in the Infield area. The staff of the Kentucky Oaks treated us like queens. I never thought that I would see Churchill Downs from the perspective that I saw it from. I just thought that I would be a spectator,” said Baptiste, whose image was captured in many photos and news footage of the parade.

The parade was a true celebration for Baptiste, who was wearing a pink fascinator hat and fitted pink dress. She was also celebrating five years of being cancer-free after her breast cancer had metastasized to her spine. “There weren’t a lot of African American women in the parade. It was great to be able to represent the African-American community. Vickie and I were right in the front and center of the parade. This made us hard to be missed,” said Baptiste.

According to the American Cancer Society Cancer Facts for 2019 – 2021, “Breast Cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths among black women, surpassed only by lung cancer. An estimated 6,540 deaths from breast cancer are expected to occur among black women in 2019.

“I think that it is important for more of us to be in the forefront and to share our stories and information about breast cancer,” said Baptiste. “It doesn’t have to happen to you because you have a family history. We have a strong disparity in our community for breast cancer. More of our women are dying from this disease than any other race. “We have to be vigilant about our health and get our checkup, do breast self-exams and get our mammograms.” The author of Dig in Your Heels, Baptiste goes across the country inspiring women living with cancer.

The Longines Kentucky Oaks is America’s premier and most lucrative race for three-year-old fillies (female horses), held each year on the day before the Kentucky Derby. During Kentucky Oaks Day, the historic racetrack is decorated in pink bunting. The more than 100,000 guests are asked to prominently incorporate pink into their attire in an effort to raise funds and drive national attention to the fight against breast and ovarian cancer. This was the 11th year for the Survivors Parade. Churchill Downs donated $50,000 to the Norton Cancer Institute’s Breast Health Program.



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