Like many things in life these days, Spectrum Health’s annual cancer survivors’ celebration branched from tradition.

Instead of survivors meeting in person at the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion for fellowship, live performances, massages, manicures and more, COVID-19 changed those plans to something with lasting roots.

Although they couldn’t invite survivors to the event, Spectrum Health and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks planted three oak trees in the initial phase of a Survivors Grove of Trees at Grand Rapids’ Garfield Park in honor of those who have bested cancer.

“Hopefully it’s something that will spark a new tradition,” said Katherine Williams, an event specialist with the Spectrum Health cancer center. “We hope to grow it through the years. Even though we can’t be together, we want to take time to recognize survivorship and create new traditions.”

Instead of traditional in-person support group meetings, Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion has moved survivor meetings to a virtual format. Besides support meetings, survivors meet online for yoga sessions and art and music therapy.

“This way, people are staying active and keeping in touch,” Williams said. “Right now, they don’t have access to that in person, but they can stay active and keep in touch virtually. Everyone has remained so nimble and flexible and they’re doing the best they can at being creative and innovative. They’re keeping people engaged.”

Williams said the tree planting dovetails with the City of Grand Rapids’ mission to plant more trees.

Stephanie Adams, executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, said her group plants 750 to 1,000 trees each year, all through volunteer efforts.

“Katherine came to us and she was looking for something unique and different for cancer survivors,” Adams said. “We talked about creating a tree grove where people can visit and have a connection to that peaceful, serene feeling you get in nature.”

Spectrum Health also purchased seed packets from Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, which are being mailed to survivors in honor of Sunday’s National Cancer Survivor Day.

“I hope people will see this as an opportunity to spread these around and help bring life and hope to our community,” Adams said. “They can help connect them with nature in a really beautiful way.”

Betty O’Brien, 75, recently received her seed packet.

She’s weeding her rock garden to prepare for planting.

The Sparta resident said the seeds and the flowers they’ll bring are a sign of hope and encouragement for her.

In 2018, after shortness of breath, doctors diagnosed her with stage 3 lung cancer. The words hit her hard.

“When the doctor told me, I felt like I floated up to the ceiling and was looking down, like I was not really hearing what I was hearing,” she said. “They set me up for aggressive treatment.”

O’Brien endured both chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

“I was scared, but I had the most amazing, brilliant doctors,” she said. “I don’t call Spectrum Health and Lemmen-Holton by those names. I call them my house of angels.”

O’Brien wrapped up her treatments in January.

“I have stabilized and have no new cancer,” she said. “Once I got past the fear, I know that God carried me and I was given all the right people. I just feel so blessed.”

She said she feels much like the seed packet that arrived in her mailbox, full of new potential.

She’s planting them in the 4-by-6-foot garden she made as a memorial for her mom.

“I can relate to the flowers,” she said. “They’ll be growing and getting stronger, just like I’ve grown in so many areas. Cancer is a trip you really can’t explain to anybody. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had happen in my life and yet one of the most beautiful things because it opened my eyes to so many different things.”