narrative medicine

What is narrative medicine? Our expert explains.

Dr. Robert Slocum

Dr. Robert Slocum

Written by Robert Slocum, PhD, the narrative medicine facilitator at UK HealthCare.

At the UK Integrative Medicine & Health program, our goal is to combine traditional medical therapies with other health and wellness practices to help patients achieve optimal health and healing.

When a patient is diagnosed with an illness or disease, the focus is often on treatment and healing the body. Unfortunately, as patients confront the anxieties of being sick, their mental health can decline, too.

One practice we use at UK HealthCare to help promote mental strength and well-being is called narrative medicine.

What is narrative medicine and how does it help?

Narrative medicine invites patients to share stories of their life and treatment through guided conversations and personal writing.

As patients share their unique experiences, a narrative medicine facilitator will help to tease out important details and insights that patients can use to cope with their diagnosis and recover mentally.

Narrative medicine helps patients understand their illness and healthcare journey in the context of their entire life story. Patients often gain new perspectives on their illness and treatment by putting their experiences into words.

Narrating these experiences may also help them discover connections between the journey of treatment and their own beliefs.

Patients often come away from narrative work with a clearer sense of personal meaning and direction.

What happens during a narrative medicine session?

Narrative medicine sessions usually take place in a patient’s hospital room or at a treatment or infusion center.

During the session, the narrative medicine facilitator will ask a few simple questions to learn more about the patient’s story and will help direct the conversation. Patients are always welcome to focus on a particular concern, issue or memory.

Although the direction of each conversation varies greatly from patient to patient, I try to ask three questions every time:

  • “What is your source of hope?”
  • “Where do you get your strength?”
  • “What gives you the courage to face the future?”

How does narrative medicine help patients’ families?

Facing illness and treatment can be a challenging journey for patients and their loved ones.

Through the narrative medicine process, patients may be better able to share the story of their treatment journey with family, friends and care providers, leading to a feeling of greater support from those who are most important in their life.

Are there medical benefits to narrative medicine?

Absolutely. Narrative medicine has been shown to:

  • Help release emotional and physical pain and encourage overall well-being.
  • Offer nonpharmacological pain management.
  • Encourage the trust and rapport between the patient and their treatment team, improving communication and promoting patient cooperation and outcomes.

UK HealthCare’s narrative medicine practice

Narrative medicine sessions are available for UK HealthCare patients and their families.

While we primarily work with cancer patients at the UK Markey Cancer Center, we also work with other specialties at UK HealthCare including heart care patients and those in the Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

For more information about narrative medicine or to schedule an appointment for a narrative medicine session, contact me at 859-324-0955 or robert.slocum@uky.edu.


Next steps:

  • Find out more about UK Integrative Medicine & Health, a program that focuses on the treating the whole patient using all appropriate therapies, healthcare expertise and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.
  • Learn about UK HealthCare’s music therapy program, which uses music to help improve patients’ well-being.

UK researcher wins prestigious award to study pediatric cancer

UK Markey Cancer Center researcher Jessica Blackburn, PhD, will conduct innovative pediatric cancer research with the help of a prestigious National Institutes of Health’s New Innovator Award, a grant totaling $1.5 million over five years.

Blackburn, who came to UK from Harvard University in 2015, runs a basic science laboratory using zebrafish as an animal model. This new award will fund research to find causes of leukemia relapse in three ways:

  • Identifying the unique genetic signature of relapse-causing cells, using single-cell sequencing technology in both zebrafish leukemia models and patient samples.
  • Discovering how and where relapse-driving cells “hide” from chemotherapy in the body using live animal imaging techniques in zebrafish.
  • Finding new drugs that can specifically kill the cancer cells that cause relapse by screening thousands of compounds zebrafish.

“The hope for this project is that we will be able to provide new insights into the biology of what causes cancer relapse, not only to find better ways to treat it, but to develop treatment strategies that will prevent relapse from happening in the first place,” Blackburn said.

Zebrafish labs are far less common than labs that use mice as an animal model of cancer, but Blackburn notes that zebrafish models provide important research advantages, which can complement traditional mouse models.

“I think this work shows that zebrafish models of human diseases – like cancer – are being more widely accepted in the medical fields, and that more people are recognizing the important discoveries that can be made using zebrafish,” she said.

The NIH’s New Innovator Award was established in 2007 and supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.

It’s one of four prestigious awards in the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward program, which was created to support unconventional approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. Applicants of the program are encouraged to think outside-the-box and to pursue exciting, trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH mission.

“I continually point to this program as an example of the creative and revolutionary research NIH supports,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. “The quality of the investigators and the impact their research has on the biomedical field is extraordinary.”


Next steps:

Making the Rounds with Dr. Emily Marcinkowski

Growing up around the operating room inspired this cancer surgeon

Making the RoundsOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and we caught up with Dr. Emily Marcinkowski, a surgical oncologist who specializes in breast cancer, for our latest Making the Rounds interview.

Dr. Marcinkowski joined the Comprehensive Breast Care Center at the UK Markey Cancer Center after completing a fellowship at the City of Hope National Medical Center in California. 

Why did you decide to become a surgeon?

My mother was a scrub nurse, so I kind of grew up going to the operating room and spent a lot of time around the hospital. Whenever she was on call, I was on call.

I really liked surgery because you can really help people and help fix a problem. And I like the relationships that surgeons have with patients. People are very vulnerable when they come in, and you get to develop a relationship with them and truly have a pretty tight patient-doctor relationship.

How do you develop those relationships with your patients?

I really like to listen to them, listen to what their goals are. Women have very different opinions about their breasts. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, some women really want to keep their breasts, some women want to have their breasts removed and some women want to come in, get their therapy and get on with their lives.

It’s very different for each patient, and I think just sitting back and listening to their stories is important. Some patients have a very strong family history of cancer and because of that, their diagnosis frightens them very much. Just hearing that, it helps me individualize their care plan.

What does a typical day away from the office look like?

My husband and I usually go eat someplace new and fun for lunch, and then I usually work out in my garden. We bought a house with about an acre on it, which is more land than I’ve ever had. We have planter boxes all over, and the tomatoes have taken over the world.

And anything on Netflix, we’ll watch.

What’s your favorite food?

Mexican food. Or anything that involves cheese. There are few things that cheese won’t cure.


Check out our video interview with Dr. Marcinkowski, where she talks about the personalized, individualized care that Markey offers patients with breast cancer.


Next steps:

Making the Rounds with Dr. Shubham Gupta

Dr. Shubham Gupta on what drew him to a career in surgical urology

Making the RoundsFor our latest Making the Rounds interview, we had a chance to talk with urologist Dr. Shubham Gupta. Dr. Gupta is one of the region’s leading reconstructive urologists and also helps genitourinary cancer patients recover from complications stemming from treatment.

Why did you decide to pursue medicine as a career?

My father is a physician, and when I was growing up, I always looked up to him. That was really the first thing that inspired me to investigate medicine as a career choice.

And over the course of my education, that choice was just solidified and consolidated into what I think has been a pretty great career thus far.

What conditions do you treat?

My practice focuses on reconstructive urology and cancer survivorship. The cancer survivorship part of it is for patients who have had cancer removed or radiated, but now they have complications from that treatment itself. Women with cervical cancer will have issues with their bladder after treatment, while men with prostate cancer will have leakage of urine after prostate removal. We are able to perform the entire breadth and spectrum of survivorship care to these patients.

The other aspect of my practice is reconstructive urology, which, to put it in very simplistic terms, is like plumbing. If your plumbing is blocked, you can remove the bad stuff and put good things back together, which is really what I do. Within urology, it’s a very small niche, and we are the only center in the entire state that provides these services.

How did you land on surgical urology as a specialty?

When I initially started med school, I thought I was going to do internal medicine, which is what my father practices. And then I rotated on internal medicine and I didn’t really like it a whole lot.

Surgical specialties, on the other hand, allow one to make a diagnosis, have a deductive reasoning and then act on it, and then maybe provide a faster way of helping the patient. During my rotations, urologists were always the most fun people to work with. They were always laid back and just loved what they did. Urology involves a little bit of medicine as well as a lot of surgery, so it’s a perfect balance.

Describe your patient-care philosophy.

The patient needs a resolution of the problem that they have, which is not just a physical manifestation of the disease, it’s everything else that goes along with it – societal aspects as well as domestic aspects.

For instance, I commonly see patients who have had prostate cancer and now have leakage of urine. You can say, ‘There’s leakage of urine, there’s the problem. How can we mitigate that?’ But the larger view is that that problem prevents that patient from going to church, from hanging out with his buddies and playing golf, and from engaging in sexual intercourse. We have to integrate all of these concerns before we decide what treatment to offer that patient.

What are your hobbies outside of medicine?

I like to read a lot – I’m a leisure reader. I like to bike; I enjoy hitting up the Legacy Trail in Lexington.

And I’m trying to pick up golf, but I am not very good at it. One of my colleagues, Dr. Ali Ziada, who is a pediatric urologist at UK HealthCare, he is as awful as I am. We go together and hit some balls and pretend that we did something fruitful with our day.

What do you enjoy most about living in Lexington?

It’s a small, fun city. It’s got things to do for young professionals, and it’s surrounded by lots of beautiful country.

And it’s got lots of bourbon, too, which is great.


Check out our video interview with Dr. Gupta, where he tells us more about the types of conditions he treats and the specialized procedures he performs.


Next steps:

Markey first to perform unique procedure for ovarian cancer

Physicians at the UK Markey Cancer Center are the first to perform a unique procedure to treat a rare and persistent type of ovarian cancer.

Dr. Lauren Baldwin

Dr. Lauren Baldwin

Surgical oncologist Dr. Lauren Baldwin and radiation oncologist Dr. Jonathan Feddock collaborated on the procedure, which involved resecting a patient’s tumor and installing a special internal radiation device known as a CivaSheet.

The CivaSheet has been used for some gynecological, colorectal, head and neck, and pancreatic cancers as well as soft tissue sarcomas, but this is the first known instance of using it for ovarian cancer.

Dr. Jonathan Feddock

Dr. Jonathan Feddock

The patient who underwent the procedure has been living with a rare type of slow-growing ovarian cancer for nearly three decades. Multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation failed to stop the disease.

Prior to this procedure, she had undergone four previous surgeries at both a local community hospital and at Markey to remove as much of the tumor as possible every few years as it grew back. Because of the location of the cancer, surgeons have only been able to safely resect about 90 percent of the tumor.

“This cancer is tricky to treat, because it is prone to recur but grows slowly,” Baldwin said. “That makes it relatively resistant to chemotherapy, which attacks fast-growing cells. Surgery is usually the best option, but each additional surgery becomes riskier for the patient.”

Markey experts brainstorm an innovative idea

Before deciding to offer yet another tumor resection as an option to the patient, Baldwin sought help from Markey’s weekly multidisciplinary tumor conference to see if oncology experts in other fields had any ideas. Feddock, who specializes in brachytherapy – a form of radiation that involves using internal implants to disseminate radiation – suggested they try combining the surgery with an implantation of the CivaSheet.

The CivaSheet is a highly flexible membrane embedded with radioactive palladium. After Baldwin resected the tumor, Feddock sewed the CivaSheet directly to the remaining cancerous area. The radiation seeds are capped with gold on one side, so they provide direct, localized radiation to the area where the tumor has been growing back while sparing the other surrounding tissue from damage.

Potential to help patients with difficult cancer

While the procedure may not cure the patient of her cancer, the hope is that the CivaSheet will inhibit the cancer’s growth, allowing many more symptom-free years to pass before the patient may need further treatment.

Because of the tumor’s slow-growing nature, Baldwin says it will take some time before they know how effective the procedure is, but she is hopeful about the outcome.

“This treatment has potential to offer control of this cancer for patients who don’t have any other options,” Baldwin said. “We’re hoping to add both quantity and quality of life for a patient in a difficult scenario.”


Next steps:

Kip Guy

Video: College of Pharmacy dean explains his research philosophy

He’s well-known now for his scientific discoveries in the lab, but UK College of Pharmacy Dean Kip Guy says he’s actually been performing experiments his entire life.

“As long as I could remember, I was always the kid out there poking the bug with a stick or playing with the pond, trying to understand what was happening and why,” he said.

As a professional chemist, Guy’s work focuses on drug discovery and development for neglected diseases, particularly those that affect pediatric patients. Coming to UK from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Guy has focused on fighting malaria, a major killer of children, as well as pediatric cancers including ependymoma, leukemias and medulloblastoma.

Although it was initially the “neat solutions” that attracted him to the field, Guy quickly learned that not even science provided easy black-and-white answers and that the work is never as simple as one might expect it to be. While researchers may have expectations of how an experiment may play out, they often learn more from the failures than if it had unfolded as planned.

“You’ve put in all this time and effort because your model told you ‘X’ was going to happen, and then you run the experiment and what you wind up with is something completely different,” he said. “These are the moments in science that are the most fun. … It’s when you break your own model and learn something fundamentally new.”

Coming to UK

As his research projects grew larger and more intensive over the years, Guy says he was looking specifically for a place where he could take a larger administrative role and begin mentoring the next generation in scientific discovery.

“I realized that one of the really big impacts we have is teaching,” he said. “So I wanted to be in a place where I could help combine the way we think about research – that interdisciplinary, interprofessional approach – with the way we teach not only research, but also clinical practice.”

As a scientist who focuses on drug development, the area of pharmacy seemed the most natural fit for Guy. He began searching for a dean position at a school that supported research collaboration with a focus on bringing new treatments to the community. He says he found “a perfect storm” at UK – a place known nationwide for its research excellence, its top-ranked College of Pharmacy and a local population in need of therapeutic intervention for a variety of serious health disparities.

“The first thing I’d say is, ‘Why wouldn’t you come here?'” Guy said. “It’s an incredible place, with amazing faculty and a long, rich and successful history of positively affecting clinical practice and the research world. … It’s about being in a place where I can work the way I want to work, with the kind of people who are here, and focusing on problems that are really serving unmet needs.”

Working for Kentucky

One example of Guy’s work having a potentially significant impact in the Commonwealth is a recently published study on research that could lead to new solutions to treat lung cancer by preventing cells from metastasizing. Kentucky ranks first in the nation in both lung cancer incidence and death, with the disease disproportionately affecting the Appalachian area of the state.

Lung cancer is one of the toughest cancers to treat – according to the National Cancer Institute, one out of every two patients diagnosed won’t survive past 12 months. Because this cancer is a disease characterized by metastatic growth, Guy says controlling that metastasis could be key to longer-term survival for lung and other cancers.

“For a lot of cancers, it’s not the primary tumor that kills you, it’s often the metastatic disease,” he said. “Being able to block that, if we can do it in a way that’s really effective and safe, could be a game changer.”

Guy has three major goals for the UK College of Pharmacy as he leads it into a new era – continue its tradition of innovation in both teaching pharmacy practice and pharmaceutical science and research; engage in even more interdisciplinary research across many different viewpoints; and emphasize the importance of a broadly inclusive and service-oriented culture at UK.

“We’re not just about working in the lab or the clinic,” Guy said. “We’re also about living in this community and doing well by it.”


Watch the video below to hear why Kip Guy came to UK and about his new findings on a compound that could block lung cancer.


Next steps:

Clark Regional Medical Center

Markey extends cancer network to Winchester

Clark Regional Medical Center in Winchester has announced a new affiliation with the UK Markey Cancer Center, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

By becoming a Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network member, Clark Regional Medical Center will be able to offer more patients in Central and Eastern Kentucky access to specialty and subspecialty cancer care, including clinical trials and advanced technology, while allowing them to stay closer to home for most treatments.

“Clark Regional Medical Center is proud to join the Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network,” said Robert Parker, president of LifePoint’s Central Kentucky East market and CEO of Clark Regional Medical Center. “Our mission is ‘Making Communities Healthier,’ and this affiliation is further evidence of our commitment to providing high-quality care for our patients close to home.”

Clark Regional is a 79-bed community hospital that has served the residents of East Central Kentucky since 1917. A Commission on Cancer-accredited facility, Clark Regional takes a multidisciplinary approach to treating cancer as a complex group of diseases that requires consultation among surgeons, medical oncologists, pathologists and other cancer specialists. This multidisciplinary approach to cancer care results in improved care for patients.

The Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network was created to provide high-quality cancer care closer to home for patients across the region and to minimize the effects of cancer through prevention and education programs, exceptional clinical care, and access to research. The affiliate network is especially important in Eastern Kentucky, where cancer rates are disproportionately high.

“We see 50 percent of our patients coming from Eastern Kentucky, which has some of the highest rates of cancer in the country, particularly lung and colon cancers,” said Dr. Mark Evers, director of the Markey Cancer Center. “The Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network allows us to collaborate with community hospitals to provide top-notch cancer care for these patients much closer to home – saving both travel expenses and time for the patients, in addition to keeping them close to their personal support system.”

Markey is one of only 69 medical centers in the country to earn an NCI cancer center designation. Because of the designation, Markey patients have access to new drugs, treatment options and clinical trials offered only at NCI centers.

Moving forward, Markey is working toward the next tier of designation – an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. Currently, 45 of the 69 NCI-designated cancer centers in the country hold a comprehensive cancer center status. The Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network will play a significant role in bringing that next level of cancer funding to Kentucky.

“Kentucky is home to some of the worst cancer rates in the country,” said Dr. Tim Mullett, medical director of the Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network. “Collaborating with our affiliate hospitals across the state will enable us to make a positive impact on the dire cancer rates here in the Commonwealth.”


Next steps:

  • Learn more about the UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network, which gives people across Kentucky access to high-quality cancer services and programs through collaboration with community hospitals.
  • Markey is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, providing world-class cancer care right here in the Commonwealth. Learn more about why patients choose Markey for their cancer treatment.
Dr. Sandra Beck

Dr. Sandra Beck’s patient-care mantra: ‘I treat you like family’

Making the RoundsFor our latest Making the Rounds interview, we sat down with colon and rectal surgeon Dr. Sandra Beck. Dr. Beck is the head of colon and rectal surgery section at UK and the program director for the general surgery residency. 

How did you become interested in medicine?

I actually started out in business in undergrad, and I realized I was helping all my friends in the sciences with their homework. I figured out pretty quickly I was in the wrong business. I explored just doing research, but realized that I actually really liked working with people. So, after doing a few years in research, I ended up going to medical school and then ended up as a surgeon.

What conditions do you treat?

We mainly treat diseases of the small bowel, colon, rectum and anus. That includes inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. And we deal with all the complications of those diseases.

We take care of patients with colon and rectal cancer, and we also take care of patients with diverticulitis or other benign diseases of the colon. And we also do things like hemorrhoids and infections around the anus.

What do you tell patients who are nervous or embarrassed about their condition?

We look at things in a very clinical sense, and it’s something we are trying to fix. So, don’t be afraid to come in and talk to us about things.

Also, colorectal surgeons have great senses of humor. We tend to be a lot of fun and we’re pretty nice people. But if you don’t want us to joke about things, we won’t. We’re sensitive, too.

What’s your favorite part of mentoring residents?

We have them for five years, and so it’s really neat to see them mature and to see what I call “the lights to go on.”

When you’re working with them in the OR at first, you can tell they’re not really seeing what you’re seeing. But then by the end of it all, they’ve matured into these great surgeons who I know can go out into their communities and be a real asset. It’s really very gratifying to see them mature in that way and to be able to be part of that.

What is your patient-care philosophy?

I try to approach it as if you are one of my family members. I try to be your quarterback, and if we need to coordinate care, I try to do that for you. But I also try to be the person you can come to to ask questions.

I think being a physician means being an educator, and I feel like we – me and the patient – need to be a good team. I need to educate you about your disease so that you know what you can do better. I’ll tell you what my role is, and then we work through the process together.

I think that’s one of the reasons my patients like me – I treat them like family. I try to make it feel like we’re all part of the same team. And then once we get you through treatment, you’re always part of the family.


Check out our video interview with Dr. Beck, where she talks more about the patient-first approach at UK HealthCare.


Next steps:

lung nodule

Your doctor says you have a lung nodule. Now what?

Dr. Jonathan Kiev

Dr. Jonathan Kiev

Written by Dr. Jonathan Kiev, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UK HealthCare.

Your doctor tells you that a chest X-ray shows a spot on your lung. It might sound scary at first, but these spots, or lung nodules, are not an uncommon occurrence.

What are lung nodules and what causes them?

Lung nodules are small masses of tissue in the lung that can be cancerous, although the majority are non-cancerous.

Dust and chemical exposure, infection or other tumors can all cause a lung nodule to form. Most people have no symptoms at all and lung nodules are accidentally discovered during the evaluation of something else.

Conversely, people who smoke or who have smoked in the past may also have nodules, which sometimes progress to an invasive cancer. That’s why it’s so important for a specialist to look at your X-rays for further evaluation.

Do lung nodules cause pain?

Pain is rare, especially if the nodule is very small. A CT scan will reveal even the tiniest of nodules, and your doctor can then correlate it with your symptoms. Rarely, if the nodule is near a rib, there could be associated pain.

Why does my doctor want me to get my old records?

An X-ray or CT scan is a snapshot in time; it shows what is happening now.

For comparison, a doctor may ask you to get old hospital records or X-rays to see if your nodule was there in the past, if it’s grown or if it’s stayed the same size. Benign nodules usually don’t change in size, while nodules that are associated with cancer can grow or spread.

If I have a family history of lung cancer, should I be concerned?

Secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer, so most physicians will screen family members of lung cancer patients more frequently. Cancerous nodules that are discovered earlier are more easily treated.

Unfortunately, that the vast majority of lung cancer patients have no symptoms at all, which is why only 15 percent of people who have lung cancer are diagnosed early.

My radiology report said that my nodule was suspicious. What does this mean?

Nodules that are deemed suspicious have certain characteristics, and your care team may want to do additional testing to find out whether your nodule is cancerous.

If your nodule is large enough, your doctor can do a needle biopsy, which involves placing a small needle in the nodule to remove some of the tissue for further testing. In some cases, a surgeon will need to do a surgical biopsy, which involves making a tiny incision to remove the questionable tissue for testing.

Why was I referred to a pulmonologist?

Pulmonologists specialize in lung disease. Through a procedure called a bronchoscopy, they are able to access different areas of the lung and perform biopsies of abnormal areas.

Additionally, they can assess your breathing function and make useful recommendations for inhalers and other medicines as well. They work in close collaboration with thoracic surgeons to form a multidisciplinary lung care team.

Should I consider lung cancer screening?

Lung cancer screening was developed several years ago to detect lung cancer in people who are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

Lung cancer screening is recommended for patients who are at high risk for lung cancer. Low-dose CT screenings are recommended for patients who:

  • Are ages 55-80.
  • Currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
  • Have a 30 pack-year smoking history, meaning the patient smokes one pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years, or two packs per day for 15 years.
  • Have no current symptoms of lung cancer.

The low-dose CT scan takes about 30 seconds to perform, and there is very little radiation exposure to be concerned about. Most insurances will pay for the scan, and many hospitals have programs to help offset the cost as well.


Next steps:

Diagnosing eye cancer early preserves girl’s sight

When Kenley Overton’s parents took their infant daughter in for her four-month wellness checkup, they didn’t know much about retinoblastoma, the rare form of eye cancer that most commonly affects children. But that quickly changed.

Kenley was born Aug. 24, 2010, to Jason and Kendra Overton. When Kenley was a few weeks old, her parents noticed that her right eye would cross frequently. They brought it up to their local pediatrician during a wellness checkup and were told that it wasn’t abnormal for newborns.

However, when the Overtons brought Kenley in for her four-month wellness checkup, her right eye was still crossing. The pediatrician suggested Kenley see an eye doctor as it was likely she would need glasses to fix the issue.

In a whirlwind of appointments, Kenley first saw an optometrist who believed she had a detached retina. She was then referred to Dr. Peter J. Blackburn at UK Advanced Eye Care. After some testing, Blackburn diagnosed Kenley with retinoblastoma – a form of eye cancer that begins in the retina. Thirteen days after her wellness check, Kenley was scheduled for surgery with Blackburn to evaluate the situation and decide on a plan moving forward.

The best-case scenario

Retinoblastoma is a rare disease; only 200 to 300 children are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. About three out of four children with retinoblastoma have a tumor in only one eye. Overall, more than 90 percent of children with retinoblastoma are cured, but the outlook is not nearly as good if the cancer has spread outside the eye.

Blackburn says that although there are no known avoidable risk factors for retinoblastoma, some gene changes that put a child at high risk for the condition can be passed on from a parent. Children born to a parent with a history of retinoblastoma should be screened for this cancer starting shortly after birth because early detection greatly improves the chance for successful treatment.

When Blackburn came out of surgery, he told the Overton family that Kenley’s cancer was only in her right eye – the best-case scenario.

He was pleasantly surprised because at Kenley’s young age, he had suspected the cancer might have been in both of her eyes. The decision was made to remove Kenley’s right eye that day.

In the years following her surgery, Kenley was regularly monitored to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread to her left eye. As Kenley continued to grow and show no signs of the retinoblastoma in her left eye, Blackburn became more confident that the cancer was limited to Kenley’s right eye.

Compassionate care at UK

Kendra Overton looks back on this difficult time in Kenley’s life and remembers how tough it was on her family. While taking care of Kenley, she and Jason also had to care for their older daughter, Jaylen, who was 4 years old at the time. But through the stress, she remembers Blackburn and the care he provided for Kenley.

“Dr. Blackburn was a very confident in the information he delivered about Kenley and her treatment plan, and he had a wonderful bedside manner,” she said.

She said Blackburn even took the time to pray with her family before Kenley’s surgery.

“At a time when we were falling apart, we really needed that and you don’t normally hear of doctors doing that,” she said.

Kenley is now a thriving 6-year-old. Kendra describes her daughter as naturally funny and someone who never meets a stranger. She just has a love for people, her mother says.

“Everyone who comes in contact with her says she is just so amazing,” Kendra said.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about UK Advanced Eye Care, which provides comprehensive care for patients of all ages  from routine eye exams to treatment for the most complex ophthalmic issues.
  • Earlier this year, UK Advanced Eye Care moved into a new state-of-the-art clinic that will allow us to provide even better care for our patients. Find out more about our new location.