Survivor Strong…

Sometimes the hardest thing about being strong, is being weak. That was the case for Rachelle Jones.

Rachelle is one of those strong people. She defines herself in many ways. Christian. Mother of two. Collegiate women’s basketball official. Former athlete. Picture of health. Super woman.

Cancer survivor.

But never weak. Always strong.

When she found the lump, she immediately contacted her doctor. She had never been sick in her life, but finding a lump has a way of injecting a harsh dose of equal measures panic and urgency into any situation.

In what surely felt like an out of body experience, Rachelle was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and began treatment. Life had changed.

That might be one of the most unexpected aspects of cancer—just how life changing it is.

But for Rachelle, it was not her own life that she was scared would change. It was the lives of her children—how would this affect her high school-aged son and daughter? She had always been the one with the answers. She had always been the one they could count on to be strong.

Seeing a person who has always given strength to others show any small sign of weakness, can be a rattling experience—especially when that person is your mom and the cause of the “weakness” is cancer. Rachelle didn’t want her children to have such an experience.  She prayed throughout her treatment that God would give her the strength to maintain a sense of normalcy for her son and daughter.

A year later, with the love and support of her devoted family and friends, Rachelle returned to collegiate basketball. Life was starting to return, not to normal, but the new normal. Rachelle is healthy, she is once again physically strong, but she is forever changed.

In this way, change was good. In this way, Rachelle is stronger than ever before. She came through a situation bigger than her own physical strength and she came through it stronger—mentally stronger, spiritually stronger.

That there are people who have enough strength to overcome and in doing so give us strength, is amazing.

Coach Yow was a giver of strength. It seemed she always had more than enough to go around.

The same is true of Rachelle.

Their greatest gift is that in the face of great adversity, they show us how to be strong, even when they feel weak.

 

To Donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

Beginning to End

We live in a result-driven society. A society that values test scores, win/loss columns, box scores, bottom lines. Results.

Maybe that is why so much of our time is spent thinking about endings. How many times have we heard “what is the end result?” or the “end game.” The end is when we get the results and the results are all that seem to matter.

But maybe, our focus shifts to the end not because of the results, but for other reasons. The end seems like a time in the future. An unknown time. A time that could be better than today. The end is somewhere that hope lives.

The end of cancer.

There are times the end and the hope are harder to see.

Katherine Peele is an architect and mother of twins. She was diagnosed in 2010 with stage 1 invasive breast cancer.  At the time, it was hard to think about the end. The beginning was so scary.

She was forced to face an opponent she never truly considered personally facing—cancer. The news came as a shock. Facing her own mortality, not through the lens of her own life, but from that of her daughters—the scariest part. What would the results be? What would the end be?

Katherine is thankful for the advances in cancer research that are allowing doctors to treat each patient as an individual. Each individual receiving custom care based on their specific type of cancer. Gone are the days of breast cancer’s being treated with a generic mastectomy followed by equally generic rounds of chemotherapy. There is a plan now. A plan that is yielding results, better endings.

It is hard for many to relate to the idea of cancer research. It seems abstract. It might even seem like it only applies to test groups, case studies, destined to be written in journals and filed on a shelf. Katherine, like millions of other survivors in America, can relate to cancer research, it is personal. It is the reason she is here.

Somewhere in the recesses of all of our minds, we know the importance of cancer research. We know it is saving lives. Yet, the thing that usually eludes us is that it might be our own life that it saves.  We know the statistics. 1 in 3 women will develop some form of cancer over the course of a lifetime. For a third of us, it will become personal. Too personal.

Katherine’s story gives us hope. The beginning was scary. The days had more questions than answers. But those days are gone. These days are filled with health and opportunities—to watch her daughters grow, to create memories.

The fight against cancer has a lot of days. We are now far removed from the beginning. As the days go by, research moves us closer to the end—the end of cancer. The day can’t come soon enough.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

The Disease of the People

Denise Brooks had never been sick in her life. Not even the flu.

So when she felt the lump in March 2016, she did what most otherwise healthy people would do. She did nothing. It could not be a big deal. “Big deals” don’t happen to healthy people.

Big deals happen to other people.

Unalarmed, she continued in her, literally, fast-paced life as a collegiate women’s basketball official. After all, March is not the time to slow down. If anything, Denise’s life speeds up in March.

A couple of weeks later, she noticed that the lump had become hard.   At this point, it was no longer a problem for other people. It was her problem. She made the call and scheduled the appointment.

Days later, the doctor called. She encouraged Denise not to look at the Internet. As alarming as the Internet can be about health issues, it is likely that being told not to look at the Internet might be even more disturbing.

She had infiltrating ductal carcinoma. Her particular type had a 97% proliferation rate.

In the days that followed, Denise underwent numerous procedures to further diagnose the cancer, perform the lumpectomy, put in the port that would provide a literal lifeline to health, and then a procedure to ensure clean margins.

When the surgeries were over, there were 4 rounds of chemotherapy followed by 33 sessions of intense radiation.

It was not easy. None of it was easy. After the treatments concluded, getting back into the physical condition it takes to keep up with 18-22 year old collegiate athletes turned out to be more of a challenge than expected. When you spend your life as an athlete, you identify as an athlete, even sick. Your own expectation is that you will bounce back, and bounce back quickly.

The road wasn’t easy.  Nothing about cancer is easy.

For all of the ways cancer attacks the body physically, the physical aspect was not the most difficult.

The hardest part of cancer for Denise Brooks? Telling her parents.

Not the chemo, not the 5 days a week she underwent radiation.  Not putting in the port, or removing the lump. Not the long road back to basketball.

The hardest part is the people.

The hardest part of cancer is always the people. The people it impacts. The people we love. The people that love us.

Cancer is called the disease of the aging. And yet, cancer much than that. It is the disease of the people. All people.

Coach Yow must have understood the universal significance of cancer. She viewed it as a foe–yes. But she also, in a way so uniquely her own, found the positive, seeing it as a way to unite people.

We are united in a fight that touches us all. It is a fight with many battles–too many battles.  Each win strengthens our common bond. Each win gives us hope of a bigger win– the final win against cancer.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

Beyond the Game…

Disclaimer: The first paragraph of this blog is written somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But only somewhat. You will understand.

For those who may not be familiar with the seriousness of collegiate rivalries, to say that the greater Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina is “war-torn” is to put it somewhat mildly. Weddings are planned with football schedules in mind. College students camp for weeks in the winter for a chance to see their favorite team do battle with their fiercest rival. Things are serious. Very serious.

And yet, amid such seriousness, there are things that seem to transcend the divide. One of them is friendship. Another is cancer.

Sylvia Hatchell and Kay Yow were united by both.

On October 11, 2013, UNC Women’s Basketball Head Coach, Sylvia Hatchell, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. In the days and months ahead, her thoughts often went to her friend and former rival, the late NC State Women’s Basketball Coach, Kay Yow. Coach Yow had passed away 4 years earlier after a 22-year journey with breast cancer.

Not by chance, but by grace, both women were accustomed to beating the odds. They were both a part of making women’s basketball what it is today – a far cry from the days when they drove their teams in vans and made peanut butter sandwiches for their players in lieu of a pre-game meal.

For Sylvia, beating the odds would now mean beating a type of cancer that has less than a 30% survival rate over five years. For Coach Yow, beating the odds meant keeping cancer at bay long enough to be a part of elevating women’s basketball over the course another two decades, starting the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, and giving hope to others.

Both women beat the odds. Coach Hatchell likes to say “you don’t know how strong you can be until strong is all you have.”  Sounds like something to which Coach Yow would have given an approving nod.

When cancer knocks, it seems the things that divide us, usually silly things, like rivalries, fade away. All that remains is a mutual support and admiration of courage in the face of great adversity.  The desire to see a friend through, to give hope.

Sylvia Hatchell is now four years removed from the moment she felt what she describes as “tremendous fear” – the moment she learned of her diagnosis. In Coach Hatchell’s mind, cancer is behind her. Another win in her column. She now looks for ways to help other women get wins of their own.

She tries to help women along the winding road of their own journeys. She visits UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center — a 2014 recipient of a $1 million research grant from the Kay Yow Cancer Fund — where she herself received great care. She visits women undergoing treatment at Lineberger to encourage and support them in any way she can, in every way she can.

Giving to others is a big motivator for Coach Hatchell and is one of the reasons she is so passionate about supporting the work of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. She knows, as did her dear friend, Kay Yow, that through the Kay Yow Cancer Fund coaches, players, fans, and communities can rally together to help others win. It is, as she says, “a win-win.” Unlike all of those NC State vs. UNC games, everyone wins. There are no rivals, only people wearing the same jersey, giving everything they have for their team to win all the little wins along the way and hopefully, one day, the biggest win of all – the win against cancer.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

Measuring Strength…

There are a lot of pieces of Cheryl Smith’s story that should be told. Pieces that are inspiring and uplifting. Hers is a story of perseverance and determination.

Perseverance. The day she was diagnosed started with a nurse dismissing her golf ball sized lump because of a previously clean mammogram. The day ended with a biopsy. Less than a week later she was diagnosed with bilateral malignant breast cancer. Cheryl’s insistence that day probably saved her life. Had she just gone home, it could have been too late.

Determination. Cheryl continued to work throughout her journey with cancer, which included months of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries, and six weeks of daily radiation. She was granted flexible hours and work-from-home status through an ADA accommodation, which enabled her to maintain her workflow, and her family’s financial responsibilities. Her colleagues at NC State generously donated hundreds of hours of leave, to keep her paycheck stable.  The reality of her situation was she did not have the luxury of staying home and just healing. She’s the sole support for two college-aged daughters and an elderly mother whose care relied solely on her ability to provide. In addition, if she had to leave her job, she would be unable to afford health insurance. No health insurance, for Cheryl, meant a death sentence.

But the common thread in the patchwork quilt of Cheryl’s story is strength—her strength.

Cheryl Smith is a strong woman. But then, it takes a strong woman to be a 5.10 level rock climber. But Cheryl is not just physically strong, she is mentally strong. She has the kind of strength most of us have a hard time comprehending. She has the kind of strength it takes to go to battle against cancer.

In 2014, the Kay Yow Cancer Fund awarded a $1 million grant to UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. The grant funded a research study that focused on the benefits of exercise on women undergoing cancer treatments. Cheryl Smith was a part of that study.

Cheryl talks about the study and the principal investigator, Dr. Hy Muss,  and it is obvious that being a part of it gave her a much needed boost. As she talks about it, one can’t help but think how happy Coach Yow would be to hear about all of this. This is after all, just what she had in mind—giving to others. Giving a boost. Giving hope.

Exercise gave Cheryl a feeling of normal. It lifted her out of the physical and emotional pain of cancer, transforming it to a challenge that she could meet. When treatments were physically debilitating, she allowed herself to rest, and got back to her workout, even if it was only a short walk in her neighborhood.  And she planned her next climb.  Exercise gave her a gateway from cancer back to a world of health. A world that involved a challenge, the thrill of competition, process of setting a goal and the joy of beating it. Kicking cancer to the ground.

The exercise program, like all cancer-related research, was scientific in nature, meaning that the outcomes were intended to be measurable and, most likely, physical. For Cheryl, it is quite likely that the exponential benefits were, for the most part, unquantifiable.

And now we have it. The part of cancer that cannot be quantified. The part of every research study that cannot be measured. The “x” factor that all survivors bring to their journeys– their own courage, perseverance, and strength. The hope that they give others who are facing journeys of their own. This is the part of all survivors that cancer will never beat.

 

To Donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

Facing the Facts…

We all know the numbers. Unfortunately, we are way too familiar with the facts, figures, and statistics that surround cancer.

But on the day you are diagnosed, the numbers fade away. The statistics don’t matter. The percentages are not relevant. Suddenly, the numbers have a face—your face.

Jackie Myers was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer on July 5, 2009. More specifically, July 5, 2009 at 5:15 p.m. She remembers where she was and what she was doing when the doctor called to give her the good news and the bad news.

The bad news was, of course, that she had stage 2 colon cancer.

The good news, according to her doctor, was she had “an 80% chance of being alive in 5 years.”

As Jackie recalls the exchange, she reflects on that moment when the statistics suddenly failed to provide comfort. Rarely do statistics provide comfort.

An 80% chance of being alive in 5 years. Jackie readily admits that her journey with cancer has made her more aware of the magnitude of her blessings, more aware that there are those who are far worse off—but still, 80% failed to seem soothing.

It can be hard for people to connect to something as abstract as cancer research. Maybe it seems like something that lives in a lab.  Maybe it seems like the sort of thing that doesn’t help “real” people.

But on the day you are diagnosed, cancer research suddenly becomes very personal. On that day, every decision about your health for every day moving forward is directly connected to cancer research. Directly connected to the research that has determined your course of treatment, a course of treatment that could save or extend a life—your life.

In Jackie’s case, cancer always seemed far removed. Of course, she knew people who had it. She knew some people who had battled and overcome. She knew others who, despite their equal measure of will, had not been so fortunate. She knew Coach Yow.

Jackie actually played for Coach Yow at Elon and even was a teammate of hers on the Rubi-Otts softball team. She loved Coach Yow and admired how she “fought the fight”.

Even at that, cancer wasn’t personal. How could it ever be truly personal until it is you?

But that is the thing about cancer. It is personal. It is very personal. It affects each of us. Our families, our friends. On the day we come face to face with a cancer diagnosis, no stats or figures can give us true hope.

Hope comes from the thought that the future will exist, and not only exist, but that the future will contain a day better than today.

That is where cancer research comes in—the search for a day better than today. A day when lives will be enhanced and extended far beyond what today’s very best medicine has to offer.

Funding cancer research is one of the most important things we can do, because when we support cancer research, we are not just funding the future, we are funding hope. In this way, we can all give hope.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

In All Things…

Coach Kay Yow was a visionary. She was the sort of person who had the ability to look into the future and see not just what could be possible, but what would be needed.

As a person of deep faith, she knew the importance of giving thanks “in all things,” even cancer. She was thankful that her visibility allowed her to use her cancer for a great purpose. To do those things she loved to do — give, serve, encourage.

When Coach Yow started the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, almost ten years ago, one of her biggest aspirations for the Fund was that it would be a source of encouragement and hope for other survivors. For all survivors.

Coach Yow not only provided encouragement and hope by her example of a life well lived, but also in very practical ways.  By starting the Fund to insure that life saving and life extending research continues.

Frances Strickland lives by the same credo. She embodies Coach Yow’s vision. Like Coach Yow, Frances gives. She serves. She encourages.

For too many of us, cancer hits much too close to home. For Frances, cancer hit home repeatedly. Four years, four cancer diagnoses. Her sister, her brother, her mother. . .and, in year four, Frances. Invasive carcinoma. Stage three breast cancer.

Frances tells that getting the correct diagnosis was not easy. But then again, has anything about cancer ever been easy?

She felt a small lump, nothing that seemed significant. Nothing that appeared too significant on a precautionary mammogram and ultrasound. However, because of her family history, she also had a biopsy, which detected a cancer 7.5 inches in diameter. Since her cancer started in a lactation duct and “spider webbed” out from there, the usual screenings did not catch it.

That it was caught at all is amazing. That it was caught in time is miraculous.

What do you do when you find yourself staring in the face of great adversity?

Frances went to her core, to her faith. For Frances, her faith is a sustaining force. An unwavering power. And, again, faith teaches to give thanks “in all things.”  A thankful heart led Frances to find purpose in all things, even the hardest of things.

Like Coach Yow, Frances found purpose in cancer:

  • Sharing her courage — the kind of courage that only deep faith can provide; the kind of courage that knows that healing will eventually come; the kind that instills courage in others.
  • Making provision for the future needs of others by being the inspiration for and driving force of fundraising events that have raised more than $50,000 for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund over the past few years. Money that will go to support the fight against ALL women’s cancers. Giving hope and encouragement to those who need it most.

Frances uses her story to help others face their own. She is cancer free now. It still isn’t easy. Some of her family was less fortunate. But, Frances’ message is one of courage. In living a life of courageous conviction and action, Frances gives hope to others. Enough hope to find purpose. Enough purpose to give hope.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

30 Years Later…

This weekend marks 30 years since Kay Yow’s initial cancer diagnosis. While Coach Yow is no longer here, she is always with us. Her story lives on. She continues to give.

On August 5, 1987, Coach Yow was diagnosed with breast cancer. For those who are not as familiar with Coach Yow’s story, a quick Wikipedia search would tell you that she passed away on January 24, 2009, after a 22-year journey with breast cancer. But there is more. Much more.

The important thing about Coach Yow’s story is not the final day, but each and every one of the 7,843 days in between August 1987 and January 2009. Days Coach Yow used to make a difference in the lives of her players. Days she used to make a difference in the sport of women’s basketball. Days she used to make a difference in the lives of future generations of women who would eventually find themselves in a fight against cancer.

She used these days to give.

In a time when many are questioning the effectiveness of cancer research, Coach Yow’s last 7,843 days on Earth are a testament to how far we have come.

Cancer research gave Coach Yow time. We wish it had given her more time, but we are thankful that it gave her enough time.

Enough time to lead the United States to an Olympic Gold medal in 1988. 421 days after her initial diagnosis.

Enough time to lead NC State to the 1998 Women’s Final Four – 3,889 days after her initial diagnosis.

Enough time have a career worthy of induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – 5,534 days after her initial diagnosis.

Enough time to be awarded the 2007 ESPY, the JimmyV Award for Perseverance — 7,280 days after her initial diagnosis.

And 7,426 days after that fateful day in 1987, Kay Yow started the Kay Yow Cancer Fund – her final gift to us all. A gift that will continue to give strength and hope to others.

For Coach Yow, every day mattered. A lot of living took place after August 5, 1987.  These days represented an opportunity to give. An opportunity to make a contribution. An opportunity to change lives.

It has now been 10, 960 days since Coach Yow learned she had breast cancer. All of those days matter. All of those days are leading to better days. Days when cancer may not have such a hold over us.

We miss Coach Yow, but we give thanks for all the days that cancer research gave her. Days she gave us.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

Ripple Effects

December 2007 was the rock thrown in the still lake. It was the beginning of the ripple effect.

For those who are linear thinkers, it might seem strange to say that December 2007 was a starting point in two lives. Especially these two lives. Two lives that had already given almost a century of service to thousands of people. For Kay Yow and Annette Lynch, December 2007 was not just a starting point, it was, in many ways, the starting point.

To say that Annette Lynch’s life has been purpose driven is to say the very least. Her path through life has been a series of professional positions, any one of which could be considered a calling, all of them centering around one word—giving. As a coach, giving to her players. As a director at the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA), giving to an entire profession. Giving through a storied career in Special Olympics that started with a successful job interview with Eunice Kennedy Shriver and is still going strong.

Purpose driven.

Yet even for the most ambitious of souls, coming face to face with the realities of a cancer diagnosis would heighten the senses and double down on the resolve to find purpose.

Purpose in life. Purpose in cancer. Purpose in living beyond cancer.

In December 2007, Coach Kay Yow finalized plans to officially launch the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Annette Lynch finished 33 rounds of radiation. It was a starting point for living beyond cancer. The point of purpose.

For Kay Yow, the Fund became her purpose, an avenue to give back. To give in favor of life extending research. To give to the underserved. To give future generations of women the chance to find their purpose. To give hope.

With Annette, late 2007 was the start of a conscious decision to live with purpose. Each day would be deliberate. Each encounter with a young professional or a Special Olympics athlete, the chance to mentor.  The chance to give.

Annette says, “We are measured by doing what we can with what we have, not what we don’t have.”

So true.

Cancer or no cancer, none of us know how many days we have left. The challenge is not in knowing the number of days we have left. The challenge is in taking each day and maximizing the number of giving opportunities. How much can we give? How much of an impact will we have?

Money raised for cancer. Athletes given the chance to excel. Lives bettered. Lives changed.

These are the ripple effects from survivors like Kaye and Annette, casting their stones into the still waters … the purpose of survival … and making a tremendous difference in the lives of others … of giving hope.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

Giving Hope…

Christmas. New Year’s. Birthdays. All special days — days that should fill us with the best emotions life has to offer. Emotions that cannot be bought or quantified. Emotions as essential to us as life itself – peace, joy, and hope—especially hope.

For Andrea Eason, there was a time when the peace of Christmas was taken by the anxiety of test results. The celebration of New Year’s was taken by the raw emotion of a breast cancer diagnosis. The joy of another birthday was taken by an upcoming mastectomy.

Cancer has taken too much. Cancer often takes our sense of peace, our joy. But through the very worst, hope prevails. Hope is stronger than cancer. Even when cancer takes, hope continues to give.

Knowing Andrea is to receive the gift of hope.

In Andrea, other women see a fighter. Someone who refused to think the worst, but chose to live at her best. Someone who battled breast cancer as a single mother while balancing her career as a partner in her accounting firm. Andrea encourages women to do their own research, investigate their best options, and make decisions based on what is best for them. She is someone who handles the uncertainties of life, particularly life with cancer, with grace and courage.

Coach Yow gave us a similar example, fighting cancer with the shield of hope and a sword of grace. She was someone who refused to forfeit the joys of life, even in the most difficult of times, to the unrelenting power of cancer.

In these women we see all that is possible. We see the power of the human spirit and the best that exists in each of us. Watching these incredible women not just survive, but live — this gives us strength, this gives us hope.

And we know, hope cannot be taken. Hope can only be given.

Of course, we know that each diagnosis is different. Each journey contains its own challenges, presents its own battles. Each story starts and ends in a slightly different place. But each journey has the opportunity to generate hope. The kind of hope that can sustain others through the extremes of life. Andrea’s life with cancer generates hope. Long-lasting hope.

There are over 15 million people in the United States living with cancer today. They give us hope. They give each other hope.

Andrea Eason does not believe that her journey with cancer is particularly remarkable. But it is. Andrea’s journey gives hope to others. And giving hope is beyond remarkable – it is extraordinary.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.