All in Perspective…

Coach Yow, who experienced the highs of being an Olympic gold medal basketball coach and the lows of fighting two bouts with breast cancer, always advised against “getting too high with the highs or too low with the lows.”  Shannon Miller calls it “keeping things in perspective.”

As a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, Shannon has also experienced some of the grandest moments life and athletics can offer. As a survivor of a rare form of ovarian cancer–germ cell cancer– she has also experienced some of the most difficult moments life and cancer can offer.

How did Shannon develop the ability to keep things in perspective and how has that ability helped her through the ups and downs of her life?

She gives great credit to her parents who always reminded her that gymnastics was not life. Life was life. They were adamant that faith, family and education were the things that would carry her through.

And carry her through they did, especially when she faced one of the lowest points in her life.

Just 14 months earlier, Shannon had experienced one of her greatest highs ever, the birth of her precious son. Looking back, she was experiencing symptoms but brushed them off as normal female issues or post pregnancy issues.

I was very fortunate to have gone into my doctor when I did. In fact, I was calling up to postpone my appointment. However, as an advocate for women’s health, I was feeling completely guilty as I waited on hold, so I ended up taking the first available appointment–that morning. That was when my doctor found a baseball-sized, cyst on my left ovary. This would eventually be diagnosed as a rare form of ovarian cancer. 

At that initial appointment, I told my doctor I felt fine. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had 3 of the primary symptoms of ovarian cancer including

  1. sudden weight loss (thought I was losing baby weight),
  2. stomach aches (brushed them off as body changes after having a baby) and
  3. bloating (chalked that up to regular women’s issues). 

It still scares me to think how easily I dismissed these health issues without a second thought.

Once the diagnosis was made, Shannon’s perspective on many things changed.

Being tired no longer meant having a day with a little less energy. It meant a 15-minute internal pep talk to gather enough energy to move her legs to the side of the bed. It meant taking a break to sit down three times during a shower.

Perhaps subconsciously, Shannon thought of being bald as a sign of sickness. A friend helped change her perspective on that by reminding her that this baldness was a sign that she was fighting back. It became a sign of strength and resilience.

Still, she worried that their young son would be scared of his mommy once she lost her hair. How would it affect him? What would he think of bald mommy? She worked to ease his mind, but in the end, in the eyes of a 14 month old, “Mommy is Mommy.” He was unshaken.

Even as Shannon was going through cancer, she could look to her mother, herself a cancer survivor, as a role model of overcoming adversity through faith and sheer will. Having gotten down to 87 pounds at one time due to the ravages of surgery, chemo and radiation, her mother not only survived, but, just a few years after treatment, at age 65, ran her first marathon!

Early on, Shannon’s parents made sure she understood that there would be life beyond gymnastics and that neither a great nor a dismal performance could affect who she was or how much effort she would give the next time out.

That turned out to be a great lesson for all the highs and lows in life. Enjoy and be thankful for the highs. Endure the lows. Learn from both. Neither is permanent. Keep it all in perspective.

Photo credit, Liliane Hakim.

Out Running Cancer…

“I couldn’t out run, out swim, or out ride cancer – it still found me.” Was Cindy’s comment about being diagnosed in 2014 with triple negative breast cancer. Cindy is a tri-athlete. For everything our heads tell us about cancer not discriminating, our hearts tell us a triathlete should be immune.

Still the truth is, you are never too healthy to get cancer. Really, you are never too anything to get cancer.

Cindy’s approach to cancer was like that of preparing for a triathlon. She planned it out. Each day had a purpose. Each meal, each therapy was a part of a bigger plan. The plan was designed to beat cancer.

The plan worked. After three years of various therapies, she had finally beaten cancer.

But had she?

There is so much attention given to women who are going through cancer. So much focus on what to do during treatments, how to prepare for the next surgery. But what happens when there are no more treatments to get through or surgeries to prepare for?

What happens next?

For many women, there is an expectation that after the final treatment, they will be cancer free. Maybe the scans say there is no sign of cancer in the body, but there is still cancer in the soul.

There is fear. Fear of the next doctors appoint. Fear of a recurrence. Fear that normal may never be known again. Fear can be one of the most crippling forms of cancer.

For Cindy, who had already faced cancer once prior to her 2014 triple negative diagnosis, these fears are very real.

Yet, in the aftermath of cancer, Cindy finds the value of vulnerability. She has re-prioritized her life and even found a way to give back to a group of women who, sadly, are often overlooked.

Typically, when women are actively undergoing treatment for cancer, their support system is strong, but naturally that support tapers off post-treatment when people think cancer has been beaten—but the need for community still exists.

Cindy works to help women find their “new normal” and provide the much-needed sense of community post-cancer. Her specific touch is in Dragon Boating, which provides a way to bolster health and build “team” simultaneously. Bigger than that, in her way of giving hope, she is helping other women find their own unique contributions.

Research will one day provide the long awaited, long over-due end to cancer. In the meantime, Cindy and these amazing survivors are providing the leg work to end cancer. They are conquering it one fear, one vulnerability, one new normal, one woman at a time.

The race is ongoing.

One day we will out run cancer.

 

For more information on the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, visit KayYow.com.

One More Step…

Imagine you are climbing Mt. Everest. You are at an elevation of 25,000 feet. You run out of oxygen. What do you do next?

You take one step forward.

You keep going. It is the only thing to do.

Maybe it is a similar feeling when a person is diagnosed with cancer – terror. Maybe the approach to dealing with cancer is also similar – take the next step. Keep moving forward.

Lisa Thompson has climbed many mountains. Some figurative, some literal. She likens her journey with cancer to the challenge of a climb.

She was 43 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. Like many women, the diagnosis seemed beyond belief. She thought, surely, the radiologist had the wrong scan. But the scan was hers and the radiologist was correct, it was cancer.

She had a climb set, her first in the Himalayas. While many thought she should, at the very least, delay her plans, Lisa was determined to make the climb. She found an oncologist that supported her goal – this is a critical piece of her story — finding people who understand your goal and will help you achieve it.  Someone who realizes detaching a person from their personal goals is more dangerous than the cancer itself.

In April she had a bilateral mastectomy. In August she left for Nepal. She didn’t scale the peak in Nepal, not because of her health, but because of climbing conditions. But the experience sharpened her resolve and she set her sights on Mt. Everest.

On March 3, 2016 she had her final round of cancer treatment. 23 days later, she left for Mt. Everest. In every way imaginable it was the journey of a lifetime. It is an amazing story. The sort of story that surely must be a one of a kind. But at that time, Lisa didn’t tell her story, in fact she made sure nobody on her climbing team knew that she had just undergone treatment for cancer. She didn’t want anyone to think she could not pull her weight or contribute as an equal part of a team that would need every link, none of them weak.

At 8 a.m. on May 19, 2016, Lisa Thompson and her team reached the peak of Mt. Everest. That night, at 29,029 feet, from the literal top of the world, Lisa felt the strength and support of every person who had helped her reach the peak.

Elevation of 25,000 feet and out of oxygen or the uphill climb to beat cancer? Lisa has experienced both and is confident cancer, not the mountain, was the tougher opponent. In the face of adversity, she is a reminder that we are stronger than we can imagine. All we have to do is take the next step forward.

 

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

 

Empowering Our Team…

On February 17, 2018, Liz Fenton and her sons participated in the 2nd annual Kay Yow Cancer Fund Celebration Run/Walk. Wearing a pink cowboy hat that was given to all of the survivors in attendance, Liz ran the 4K route, doing her best to keep up with her sons.  Liz crossed the line with her sons by her side. They finished as they started, as a team.

The run was about a lot of things – least of which was running. It was about encouraging, empowering, and true to its name, celebrating. It was about the survivors – their personal battles and our collective fight against cancer. It was about the giving everyone involved the chance to be a part of a team – a winning team.

It is a team that Liz is familiar with – a team for which she herself has given much.

At age 41, Liz Fenton faced cancer—for the second time in her life.

Diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 28, she was now facing early stage triple positive breast cancer. Her mother had passed away three months earlier and her husband was a stem cell donor for his brother, who was also battling cancer. There was no immediate family in town and she was raising three young boys. Liz needed support – she needed a team.

Without orchestration, Liz’s team started to take shape. Women she knew from tennis, neighbors, other young mothers all coming to her side, giving strength for the day and hope for better days to come.

Maybe it was the team concept that led Kay Yow to start a cancer organization. She knew the value of team.  For Coach Yow team was also family.

Where Coach Yow was rich in team, she also realized many women did not have that community of support.

Her vision for the Fund was such that through events like the Celebration Run/Walk and Play4Kay nationwide, a team, a family has been created and is growing. With each event, each passing year, our team gets bigger, our hope gets louder.

As with all teams, there are roles to be played. Liz’s role has changed through the years. She has been the recipient of the gifts of hope and strength and she has also given those gifts to others. It is the consummate team metaphor.

In the years since her second diagnosis, Liz and her team continue to battle cancer.

She participates in an ongoing research study at Duke University. A study that is helping advance our understanding of cancer at a scientific level.

She has been a driving force beyond local Play4Kay events and participates in an annual fundraiser that unites her community in the fight against ALL cancers affecting women.

Looking ahead, we know that there is a big win coming for our team. When that day comes, we will have women like Liz to thank – empowered women that have found the strength to give us hope.

 

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

Cancer Never Stood a Chance…

As easy as it is for those who have not experienced a cancer diagnosis first hand to immediate call to mind a level of fear, it may be equally difficult to imagine an immediate, personalized and realistic reaction.

What goes through a person’s mind when the doctor says, “it’s cancer…and there is a lot of it”?

Lori Wynn had two immediate thoughts, first “is this how people feel when they hear things like this?” followed by “my mom is going to kill me.”

On June 30, 2016, Lori Wynn was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. While there are some forms of cancer that no longer pose an imminent threat to health and happiness, stage 4 ovarian cancer is not one of them.

Lori met her diagnosis with the knowledge that just 8 years prior, her brother had died of cancer. Now this. Her mother would be devastated.

She did not ask her prognosis. She did not want to know. She wonders if this was because she was in denial. Perhaps, but that begs the question – how long can cancer be denied?

So far, not long enough.

She approached her diagnosis with the mentality of a coach. She is a coach at Geneva College in Pennsylvania. Cancer would be a challenge, with each day being an opportunity to win. She would walk through it and come out on the other side. She had a 9-hour surgery flanked by a total of 8 rounds of chemotherapy. She remembers the first round of chemo being “the worst thing I have ever done.” It was a complete shock – one that she says nothing can prepare you for. Yet, it is 2018 and Lori got through it. She is on the other side. She walked through. She is coaching again.

Having been through this battle, she readily admits that cancer presented a battle she was not prepared for – she did not pick the fight. The fight picked her.

Lori elected to take treatment in North Carolina, where her parents were living, appreciating that she needed care “only a mother could give.” When her team made the drive from Pennsylvania to encourage her, it was a total surprise and a shot in the arm.

Lori is typically a private person, but the incredible support of her team encouraged her to share her story, allowing others the opportunity to come alongside her amid the journey.  She says as a Christian, she always believed the passage in Romans that tells us that “ALL things work together for good for those who love God…”

Her journey with cancer gave her the unique opportunity to truly witness the coming together of all things good. She saw her players unite in their support of their coach. She saw the other coaches in her conference, coaches who are usually her opponent, coming together to lift her up in the fight against cancer. It became a journey that started with scary thoughts and ended with a deepened faith, deeper relationships and a spirit of unity.

One day we will beat cancer for the final time. The best time. Until then we are beating it one person, one fight at a time, knowing in the end cancer never stood a chance.

 

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

One Woman at a Time…

When Coach Yow envisioned the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, she saw it wrapped around the amazing movement that is Play4Kay.  10 years later, we unpack the affects of Play4Kay and the true impact, the ripple effect, is staggering.

The obvious impact? Raising money for research. $5.63 million has been awarded so far, and we are just getting started. This is an investment that will advance science to the point that a cancer diagnosis is no longer the scariest moment in so many lives. Because, after all, as great as “cancer awareness” is, we are all aware of cancer. Only our collective fundraising efforts will eradicate it.

But there are ripples spreading to the horizon in the wake of Play4Kay that are, like all ripples are, hard to quantify, hard to measure. The ripples are moving targets, unending moving targets.

Harvard women’s basketball coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith is one of those ripples. She reflects on her diagnosis with breast cancer in 2000 as if it occurred in a different world. In many ways, it did.

“What Kay Yow did and the Kay Yow Cancer Fund has done nationally has made the road very different now than it was 20 years ago. So much hope…and, in the near future, there will be a cure,” Kathy says.

The difference in the time-lapsed landscape of our country?

The Treatment – when Kathy was diagnosed in 2000, the standard approach to breast cancer was surgery, chemotherapy, radiation – in that order. Now women have a menu of options and depending on type, the course of treatment is customized based on dozens of factors.

The Discussion – at the time Kathy was diagnosed, the conversation around cancer was a whisper. Now we shout. We put cancer on notice.

Kathy remembers the first team practice after she announced her diagnosis. The kids seemed scared, uncertain of what to do or say. To Kathy, it became apparent that she could use her situation to help these 18-22-year-old women prepare for a future that certainly involved cancer.  She used her good humor to teach them to face cancer like any other opponent, head on.

18 years later, the women who were a part of that Harvard team thank Kathy. They are now in their late thirties and, because of what their coach did for them, they have been able to fight cancer as mothers, sisters, friends and daughters.

18 years later, we celebrate that Kathy is healthy and continues to coach, shaping some of our country’s future leaders. We celebrate the changes brought on by Play4Kay and organizations such as the Kay Yow Cancer Fund that have helped advance the conversation around cancer.

The ripple effects of Play4Kay can be hard to measure, but for women like Kathy, it is obvious. Play4Kay is not about pink, it is about our team. A team that is facing cancer together. The team that is beating cancer together – one dollar at a time. One conversation at a time. One woman at a time.

#PLAY4KAY

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

This is OUR team…this is why we Play.

At this point, the list of things that Coach Yow knew is very long. And it grows each day.

Today is day 9 of the 2018 Play4Kay official window. Today’s realization: Coach Yow envisioned Play4Kay as she did because she knew teams would accomplish more than individuals. So true.

More to the point, she knew it would take a team to beat cancer. Even more true.

Sharon Versyp, Beth Courture and Terry Kix are a team. They are three members of the Purdue women’s basketball coaching staff who have battled cancer. So far, their record is 3-0 against cancer.

In March 2009, Beth was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, she was head coach at Butler University. She almost canceled her doctor’s appointment because the team had gotten in late the night before. Thankfully, she did not cancel. Her life changed that day and, though they didn’t realize it yet, so did the lives of Terry Kix and Sharon Versyp.

Fast forward. It is the week before Thanksgiving 2012, Terry is diagnosed with stage 3 stomach cancer. She immediately went into fight mode. She saw cancer as the opponent, an opponent with a 90-95% chance of besting her. It was grueling. The odds indicated a Daniel versus Goliath match up. The odds were wrong.

When Sharon was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2017, Beth and Terry became her teammates in a way that perhaps no other adversity could have crystalized or magnified. They understood what Sharon’s daily journey consisted of and were able to come along side her in the midst of the battle.

Three women. Three separate and very different battles. Three wins. One team.

On every team, there are different roles. Each important, each has their time, their contribution. In the fight against cancer, we all have a role to play, a piece to contribute.

For the last 9 days, we have been in the official Play4Kay window. It is the ultimate team event. Teams from across the country, working together, to get the biggest win – the win against cancer.

This is the way Coach Yow saw it. All of us teaming up to beat cancer. When we Play4Kay, we play for each other. We play for those who have battled, those who are battling.  We know there are battles still to come – we are playing for those too.

As we Play4Kay, look around you…sometimes the women we are battling for are the same ones we are battling with. Know your teammates. Who do you Play4?

#PLAY4KAY

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

The Sound of Hope…

If you listen to Angel Elderkin’s heart, it likely sounds like the steady bounce of a basketball. She is a coach. Her players, her staff, are family. Basketball is life.

The ball bounces.

They say when you have a life-threatening experience, you see your life flash in front of your eyes. If that is the case, a cancer diagnosis probably causes your priorities to flash in front of your eyes at lightspeed.

The word cancer is spoken, like it has been said a million times before, only this time someone was speaking to you, about you. The ball bounces quicker, much quicker. Now you are in a full court press, you are racing the clock. The only thing is, you do not know exactly how much time is on the clock.

Angel Elderkin was diagnosed with stage 3 endometrial cancer after a series of health concerns and a month of tests resulted in an eventual diagnosis. Now her priorities crystalized into a string of questions:

How would she tell her team?

What about the upcoming season?

Would there ever be a day as normal as yesterday? Ever.

Maybe those were the first questions because they were the most basic to her day to day life. Maybe those were the first because she would not allow herself to ask round 2:

What would the course of treatment be?

What were the implications for fertility?

What were the odds of survival?

At some point, the ball started to bounce at a slightly less feverish pace. She attacked cancer as a true coach. She scouted her opponent, created a game plan, and then put the long tough days it would take to win.

Telling her team was one of the hardest points. She remembers that day and can not describe the moment in detail, the intensity of emotion was so great. “I had to get in front of them, tell them the truth, see their emotion back, be vulnerable with my own emotion, but then reassure them I would be okay. Everyone in the room had different reactions. They all have been touched in some way,” she recalls.

There was the surgery, a full hysterectomy, chemotherapy, and rounds of radiation. It was intense, but so were her people.

The outpouring of support from her team, the Appalachian State community, the national community of women’s basketball coaches…the cadence of balls bouncing from across the country, the rhythm of encouragement, the sound of hope.

 

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

The Untold Stories…

The stories of survival are all important. Piece by piece we learn how to fight, how to find life, how to construct hope. Inevitably there are aspects of each story that stand out.

The first thing that stands out in the story of Jazz Perazic is that she admits she took gambles with her health. Gambles that many of us take from time to time – gambles that could have cost Jazz her life. The common thought, “it won’t happen to me,” leads to a faulty interpretation of our own priorities. Nonetheless, it is with that thought in mind, we as women, postpone annual physicals, delay getting mammograms, and avoid the very tests that could save our lives.

Jazz recalls having her first mammogram on schedule, but then skipping a few years, maybe 10 or 12 years. In 2016 she decided to go again. Thank goodness.

When her doctor recommended a post-mammogram follow-up, Jazz put it off—for months. Maybe it was denial. Can a problem without a name really be a problem?

When she finally brought herself to have the follow-up, the problem was given a name – cancer.

In the time that had passed since her mammogram, her tumor had grown substantially (now a 6-centimeter tumor), but thankfully had not spread beyond the breast. She was fortunate, a more aggressive form of cancer would have taken her life given as much time.

The other part of Jazz’s story that pushes us forward is that she readily admits that sharing her story is not easy – and yet, she shares.

She reflects on the women who, like Coach Yow, have been willing to live their battle with cancer on center stage of a public arena. These women inspire Jazz. Now Jazz inspires others.

All of their stories are important. Coach Yow’s story, Jazz’s story, the untold stories of millions of women. Our collective ability to come along side each other in the midst of some of the toughest events in life come through the stories of survival.

By profession, Jazz is a basketball coach. In reality, she coaches more than basketball. She is a life coach for 18-22 year old women – women who, like Jazz, most likely have no expectation of ever coming face to face with cancer. Women who have a 1 in 3 chance of getting some form of cancer during the course of their lifetimes. Women who need to hear stories like that of Jazz Perazic.

It was hard for Jazz to tell her story. Yet, it is her story that will save other lives. When someone tells you they took a gamble with their own life, you listen. You listen because you are shocked, you listen because you know chances are, you would do the same.

 

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

Shining Through…

Her voice is strong. It is the sort of strong that comes from a deep trust, a trust that is grounded in faith.

But it is not just her voice that is strong. When she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in May 2017, Brenda Yates had the myriad of emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis, but she also knew she would beat cancer.

There are very few things on earth worse than cancer, but the loss of a child has to be the very worst that life has to offer. Brenda lost her beautiful daughter several years ago. Having lived through the greatest of losses, she knew her battle with cancer could not possibly inflict worse pain.

In spite of it all, everything about Brenda shines. She remains joyful amid life’s very greatest adversities.  Her joy is a choice, and Brenda chooses it each day.

It is January 2018 and Brenda Yates is still in the trenches with cancer treatments still ahead. The nightmare that started 9 months ago with a breast cancer diagnosis is not over yet, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Better yet, there is hope throughout the journey.

She started treatment in June. In her situation, many women elect to have a lumpectomy or mastectomy first, followed with rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. However, on the advice of her medical oncologist, Dr. Mark Graham (who was also Coach Yow’s oncologist), Brenda elected to have the chemo first, in hopes of delivering a knockout blow to cancer.

The first round was the hardest. Maybe it was the anxiety that comes with not knowing what to expect, or wondering how much worse things would get before life started to get better, or the shock of coming face to face with the full impact of chemotherapy – all harsh realities of cancer.

Hearing Brenda tell her story, her mentality resembles that of Coach Yow. Around the time of her first treatments, Brenda decided to respond to pain by rejoicing and giving thanks. Immediately, things improved – a burden was lifted. Sometimes the pain of cancer is not treated as much by the medicine as it is by the spirit.

Dr. Graham had advised her to continue living as normally as possible saying, “we don’t live to treat, we treat to live.”  The advice was good, actually it was great. But carrying it out would fall to Brenda. It would be her choice to live and live rejoicing.

She committed to walk each day, something she describes as an effort to “take some control” and do something to build health. Day by day, there was the boost of accomplishment and, even if only for a fleeting time, a moment of control.

On October 30, she finished chemotherapy. With step one complete, her mastectomy was scheduled for December 1. When the pathology report came back, there was reason to celebrate. There was no trace of cancer remaining in the 5-centimeter tumor bed. In fact, there was no trace of cancer anywhere. It was a complete result.

Dr. Graham called her results his “Christmas present.” Oncologists are studying her case to figure out the specific causes of such tremendous success, hoping to duplicate it many times over. These are the wins that cancer research hopes to give — the wins that make funding for research critical. These are the lives that are changed, the lives that are saved.

Brenda still has 25 rounds of radiation and her reconstructive surgery to come, but there is great reason to be hopeful. Hopeful that this chapter is almost over for Brenda. Hopeful that the chapter is almost finished for ALL cancer – a day when we will all rejoice.