Instilling Hope with Scarves and Stories

Hope Scarves founder Lara MacGregor.

By Laura Ross

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

“Cancer changes your life completely,” Lara McGregor explained. “You’re never fully done with treatment until it no longer works, and then, you die. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have hope or have a survivorship experience. You survive cancer from the day it comes into your life. But, always, hope finds us in the darkest times.”

MacGregor – young mom of two small boys, entrepreneur, loyal friend and inspiration to many – knows exactly what she’s talking about.

MacGregor was 30 years old and seven months pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. While she was in treatment, a friend mailed her a box of scarves with a note saying, “You can do this!” – and an idea was born. She created the local nonprofit Hope Scarves in her spare bedroom, sending scarves and stories of hope from cancer survivors to cancer patients. From there, a movement began that has grown exponentially.

Hope Scarves captures both the stories of courageous women who have faced cancer and the head scarves they wore during treatment. The scarves are then dry cleaned through a partnership with Highland Cleaners before they and the stories are passed along to other women facing cancer, spreading a message of hope.

Since 2007, Hope Scarves, which is now located in a bustling office in St. Matthews, has distributed nearly 10,000 scarves and survivor stories to women and girls ranging in age from 5 to 93 and living in all 50 states and 16 countries.

Hope Scarves program director Erica Bricking.

In 2014, MacGregor received the news that no one wants to hear: her cancer had returned. She now faces stage four metastatic cancer, a diagnosis that makes her work for Hope Scarves even more paramount. And, just last week, MacGregor learned her battle is now intensifying with the discovery of new tumor growth in her bones.

Her diagnosis altered how the organization operates. “We’ve changed the narrative around cancer and recognize that all stories need to be told, whether they are happy or not,” she said. “We cut out the language of ‘beating’ cancer and instead try to say, ‘facing cancer’ and living life ‘over’ cancer. It has allowed Hope Scarves to blossom into this really deeper, thoughtful organization.”

MacGregor saw the shift personally. When Hope Scarves started, she was approached by a mother who lost her daughter to cancer. As the woman shared her story, MacGregor felt empathy but was also hesitant to tell a story that ended sadly. She later realized there’s power in the full story and how hope manifests in many ways.

“Our vision is to change the way people experience cancer and how we do that in an authentic way,” said MacGregor. “It’s the reality of cancer. We’ve lost volunteers, we’ve lost storytellers, we’ve lost friends and family. Their stories all matter and are all beautiful. If we are truly going to support people facing cancer, we want to recognize that hope has a role in every stage and every experience, and for many people, that experience is heartbreaking.”

Emily McCay bravely faces that heartbreak. After months of fatigue, McCay, a mother and business owner, was 40 when she was diagnosed in 2016 with myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow failure cancer. Her cancer was so aggressive that it progressed to acute myeloid leukemia within 11 days of diagnosis. She underwent intensive treatment that included a stem cell transplant using her brother’s cells. By August 2017, her leukemia was in remission.

“I took it one day at a time,” said McCay. “I open my eyes each day and say a prayer of gratitude for waking up and seeing a new morning. I work to stay in the present moment.” During her treatment, McCay received several Hope Scarves from friends. When her treatment eased, she returned the scarves, and attached her story. She felt she had come full circle.

But then, her cancer returned. Emily McCay is now in a fight for survival.

“When I read the stories, I felt connected to the power of the scarves,” she said. “It was just as meaningful to share my words of encouragement and pass it on as it was to receive that first scarf. You can be a beacon of light for someone else, just as your scarf and story was for you. Sending a Hope Scarf is one of the best ways to tell a woman you are on her team. I can promise you she will think of you every time she wears her Hope Scarf, and she will find connection in knowing that another woman who has walked this path and has passed on this scarf to her is cheering her on.”

In addition to scarves and stories, Hope Scarves raises funds for metastatic cancer research. The seventh annual Colors of Courage event, happening Oct. 5 at Mellwood Arts and Entertainment Center, is Hope Scarves’ signature event, raising more than $100,000 on average for metastatic cancer research.

The event features dinner by River Road BBQ and others, a silent and online auction, bourbon raffle and music provided by Hot Brown Smackdown. Colors of Courage began as a backyard BBQ for about 30 friends seven years ago, and now draws more than 500 guests each year, prompting the move this year to the Mellwood Art and Entertainment Center. Supporters who can’t attend the event can bid on auction items or donate to Hope Scarves by visiting its website at www.hopescarves.org.

“Colors of Courage is our signature event of the year, and we intentionally only do one big event because the rest of the year it allows us to focus on our mission, not just fundraising,” said MacGregor. “The significance of this event has ripples for the whole year. The money we raise helps us share scarves and collect stories and raise research dollars. Scarves and stories are inspiring and practical, but by investing in research, we are working toward a solution. We want to help change outcomes and increase treatment options for people.”

Research studies at University of Louisville’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center, Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Dana-Farber Cancer Center at Harvard University have all benefited from Hope Scarves’ metastatic cancer research fund. New avenues have also opened up for Hope Scarves with the growth of hospital partnerships in several states.

Emily McCay’s story resonates, as she originally planned to be a main speaker at Colors of Courage. Because of her illness, she will now appear at the event in a video message. “Emily is very ill and will be with her family this weekend,” said MacGregor. “But to me, she is the full story of Hope Scarves. She embodies the idea of health and love and light despite the outcome of her diagnosis. That’s what hits me so hard right now.

“Emily has been in really hard treatment with devastating news after devastating news for two years and through it all, she has persevered with this bright, shining light and hope that defies the diagnosis,” added MacGregor. “It’s the power of hope to find joy and love in the moment by taking it day by day and living life to the fullest. I’m so honored for her to share her story and to celebrate Emily more than ever.”

“I find hope in the true support of my family and friends,” said McCay. “I have been fortunate to never feel alone in this fight. There have been days, hard days, that I literally would meditate and visualize the hands of those who love us lifting me up. I have not had a choice in my circumstances, but I do have a choice in how I respond. Having a mindfulness and prayer practice helps quiet my mind and reduces my worry about the future. It encourages me to find gratitude and keeps me in touch with myself.”

Both young moms admit to fear about their futures. “It’s so hard to picture our families without us,” said MacGregor. “We don’t want to miss our children or their milestones. We always ask ourselves, ‘How could this happen?’ This wasn’t what we planned. Emily and I shared these feelings, and then I watched her laugh and talk with such joy and hope that my heart was breaking and bursting at the same time. There was such awe and love mixed with such heartbreak. I will carry her with me always and when I find myself facing hard times in my future, I know she will be with me and I will channel that and focus on that.”

“You have already survived 100 percent of your worst days,” said McCay. “You are doing this and you are surviving. Nobody gets through these kinds of treatments by having to gobble it up all at once. If you think of it as a huge mountain you must climb all in one day, it’s going to be overwhelming.”

She added, “Take it one day at a time. Sometimes, you are going to have to take it one hour at a time. You are going to have bad days, but it doesn’t make a bad life.”

MacGregor and the work she’s accomplished through Hope Scarves touches lives daily, including her own. “I feel like Hope Scarves fills up my bucket and it is life giving to me to use my talents and my creativity for so much good,” she said. “Then, I see the people who’ve come alongside me and believed in me and made this organization what it is today. The people I’ve met who volunteer, work for us and support us have enriched my life in ways I can’t articulate. None of that would have been possible without Hope Scarves.” VT

Colors of Courage

Mellwood Arts and Entertainment Center

7 p.m. Oct. 5

Dinner by River Road BBQ

Music by Hot Brown Smackdown

Tickets: $100

Bourbon and restaurant raffle, silent and online auction all available at www.hopescarves.org