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Kentucky Arts and Culture

A new art exhibit depicts the cancer crisis in eastern Kentucky

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Courtesy of Chezney Boothe
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Deirdre Wells lost her right leg to a cancerous tumor. She writes a blog on Facebook she calls the one-legged librarian.

Deirdre Wells has a Facebook page she calls the one-legged librarian. The 42-year old’s right leg was amputated two years ago due to a cancerous tumor. A photo of the Hazard native is featured in the art exhibit called “Cancer in Appalachia: Viewing the Cancer Crisis in Appalachia Through the Camera Lens and the Eyes of Our Youth.” She said the picture is a view of her looking down at her left leg and her right prosthesis. She hopes the reality of this picture is a reminder that continuous pain in the body should not be ignored.  

“This is a visible, daily, physical reminder that cancer really be destructive for somebody. Sometimes it’s an inward thing that we can’t see. But in my case, an outward appearance and I hope people take away from it that cancer’s not something you want to mess with. You want to be able to take care of it quickly and hopefully, maybe this will make them think,” reported Wells.  

The picture of Wells was taken by 16-year-old Chezney Boothe of Hazard. It’s part of an exhibit featuring 54 photos taken by students from eastern Kentucky. They’re part of a program designed to train and prepare the next generation of cancer researchers or cancer professionals. The Appalachian Career Training In Oncology or ACTION program at the Markey Cancer Center was developed in 2016 by Dr. Mark Evers and Dr Nathan Vanderford.

”We’re sort of on a mission to get out the word that cancer is so bad in Kentucky, which not everybody knows. And then ways that we could address that,” said Vanderford.  

Dr. Vanderford said based on current data, there are between 7,000 and 8,000 cancer cases and more than 3000 cancer deaths in eastern Kentucky each year.

“Kentucky ranks first in the nation in overall cancer incidence and mortality rates. And then what’s worse is the cancer rates are highest in eastern Kentucky and by a significant margins, ” explained Vanderford.  

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Courtesy of Nathan Hogg
An old sign for "Eastern Kentucky Tobacco Warehouses."

Twenty high school students and 16 undergrads at the University of Kentucky from eastern Kentucky were recruited to the intense two-year program which is funded by the National Cancer Institute. Vanderford said, “We recruit them into this program and we give them cancer research, cancer clinical shadowing, cancer education, and outreach activities, all with the mission of preparing them for and hopefully motivating them to pursue cancer careers.”  

Vanderford, director of the ACTION program at the Markey Cancer Center said the photo exhibit helps students begin to connect the dots of what they’re learning in the classroom and lab with what they see in their homes and their communities.  

That’s exactly what student Chezney Boothe did when she took several pictures in Perry County where she grew up. The high school junior says before being part of ACTION she was interested in being a doctor. Now she’s officially interested in oncology.

She said the photos she took include coal tipples, used in coal mining which represent the coal industry and its role in lung cancer. She also photographed a river known for its pollution which research shows can lead to an increase in cancer and a picture of librarian Deirdre Wells, her mom’s friend who lost her leg to cancer.  

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Courtesy of Chezney Boothe
A Letcher County coal tipple, no longer in operation.

“Taking the pictures was actually a very emotional experience for me. By going around my region and finding things that represented cancer and pondering what that meant to me. But then going out and actually taking the pictures and thinking about how they were related to the crisis, it was a very sobering experience,” said Boothe.  

The students took more than 200 photos. Fifty -four photos were selected for the exhibit by Jason Akhtarekhavari, manager for UK Arts in HealthCare. “We’ve taken this subject and put an aesthetic component on it and we’re introducing it through a visual art exhibit and thus we’re getting people who may have otherwise not thought about it, not had the same level of awareness. We’re raising awareness about cancer, educating them,” said Akhtarekhavari.  

Another high school junior in the program, Nathan Hogg, is from Morehead. He submitted photos of his great-grandparents’ tobacco barn. He feels like the art exhibit is a good way to inform the public about a topic he says people don’t like to talk about. “I think being able to walk through an art exhibit and see pictures, especially from a young person’s perspective of how it affects people, will kind of open peoples’ eyes to how big of an issue it is,” said Hogg.  

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Courtesy of Nathan Hogg
Tobacco sticks in Nathan Hogg's great-grandparents' barn photo

As for Deirdre Wells, the self-described one-legged librarian, she’s grateful for the ACTION program and the photo exhibit called “Cancer In Appalachia.”

“Eastern Kentucky does have a cancer problem and maybe there’s a way to prevent so many people from losing their lives to it,” said Wells.  

The exhibit runs at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center in Lexington through October 30th and at the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead through November. 19th.  

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