Living Through Cancer…

As an organization, we try to avoid speaking on behalf of Kay Yow. Perhaps it is because we lack adequate words. Perhaps it is because her life, more than her words, spoke for itself.

And then there are amazing women, like Dawn Calhoun, with whom Coach Yow would be so very happy to share her platform, her voice. Women like Dawn are the reason the Kay Yow Cancer Fund exists. Their stories let us know we are winning the fight against cancer.

Dawn was first diagnosed in 2004 with stage 1 breast cancer. Eleven years later, her cancer returned, this time as stage 4 metastatic. Her immediate response was not to allow herself to be paralyzed by fear or worry, but to focus on others.

For those who knew Coach Yow, this singular focus sounds very familiar.

Dawn’s mission became simple: Help others find the strength to live through cancer.

Like Coach Yow, Dawn gives hope through her own example. Kay Yow lived 22-years after her initial diagnosis.  The year after she was diagnosed, she led the United States to an Olympic gold-medal at the 1988 Olympics.

In like manner, in 2016, a year after receiving her stage 4 diagnosis, Dawn would complete her “epic” year: a half ironman and two full marathons.

The half ironman is a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, followed by a 13.1 mile run. It is an elite event. Completing it is an achievement; completing it while battling cancer is Herculean.

One of the blessings of the Fund is meeting women like Dawn, who, by their example, put cancer on notice. Their examples inspire equal parts courage and grace, strength and hope. Dawn is redefining life with cancer. Her measuring stick of health is not vital signs or lab reports, but bike rides. How does her strength and energy vary from one ride to the next? The assumption is, as the rides go, so goes the race with cancer.

Is cancer a race?

In many ways, yes.

Dawn is racing cancer, outlasting cancer. The goal is to see the milestones of her daughters’ lives. Graduations, weddings, children.

More broadly, we are in a collective race with cancer. Each advancement in research inches us closer to the finish line, closer to our greatest win. The fight against cancer, like an ironman, has proven to be a long race. Endurance is a factor, perseverance is paramount.

On the most molecular level, science is winning. Even more importantly, it is the spirit of women like Dawn that is truly prevailing in this fight. While we do not know how far away the finish line in the fight against cancer is, we know the outcome. This is the win we have all been waiting for – the final win against cancer.

 

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

Timing is Everything…

When Connie Bowen faced the loss of a 20-year career with a great company in June 2015, it was hard for her to imagine what the next 20 years might look like. Little did she know what a blessing would be placed before her, during the next 2 years.

Connie approached the loss of her job with a positive attitude, eagerly looking for her next adventure. Somewhere inside of her, a voice was telling her to go back to school to pursue an education in nursing. That was the fall of 2015 when she applied to go back to school and started taking classes.

In September 2016, Connie went back into her doctor’s office for her yearly mammogram. Several days later, she was asked to come back in for a second mammogram, since something looked a little different from her previous year’s screening. Her newly attained knowledge of nursing helped to alleviate any concerns about cancer, dismissing the need for additional tests as the likely result of calcium deposits.

After the second mammogram, however, it was determined that a biopsy would be needed to further examine a specific area. Two days later she received the call that no one wants to hear,  “Connie you have breast cancer!”

Connie never shed a tear, but, as a result of her training, she knew she needed to be on top of this diagnosis from the beginning. So, she started by telling her closest support team, which was her husband, Cory, and her mother, Linda. Since Cory was with her at her second mammogram and the biopsy, he already had the attitude of “we got this”! Telling her mother was more difficult since her family had never experienced anything like this. The gasp in her mother’s voice meant that the next words would need to be very powerful. Connie said, “Mom, you know I got this. I am not a poor me type of girl so let’s call it was it is and fight it.”

Connie is the baby of seven children. With no family history of cancer, she was not concerned when she met with doctor, Oluwadamilola Moturnrayo Fayanju, at the Duke Breast Cancer Center on October 10th, 2016. Her test results showed that she had DCIS, Stage 0, Grade 3 breast cancer – at the very earliest stage. Had another month gone by, her cancer may have advanced to the next stage.

Connie lists many blessings in her journey with cancer: her primary care doctor, who worked in the Duke Oncology department many years ago and recommended Duke to take care of everything from surgery to reconstruction; a neighbor who, at the time, wrote grants for Duke Breast Cancer Center and was able to provide information on all the research from the oncology department at Duke on DCIS; her own experience as a nursing student, giving her a deeper understanding of what was going on with her body; her CNA school instructor, a registered nurse who called on Connie at home to insure she was taking the proper care of herself; her husband, Cory, who stepped up to the plate and supported her emotionally, physically and financially; and, of course, all the family and friends who were by her side from the beginning to the end.

Facing cancer head-on from the beginning, Connie, who always said “what was cancer thinking attacking my body,” now gives hope to others who are in similar battles that life will one day move beyond cancer.” I tell people that I am a breast cancer survivor and I am one of the lucky ones.” Sharing her journey with anyone that will listen may encourage others to have their yearly mammograms done. Just because it does not run in your family doesn’t mean that you will be safe from it. Look at Connie, who would have ever imagined that she would be diagnosed at such an early age.

In Connie’s case, following the protocol of her yearly mammogram was divine. Sadly, there are times that even following the recommended protocol and with no prior symptoms, screenings are not timely enough. We encourage all women to be proactive, be a voice of strength and courage.

Connie beat breast cancer and today is completely cancer free. Research is advancing, and the prognosis of a cancer diagnosis is not what it used to be. Still we can all do our part individually and collectively. Get screened, help the global fight against cancer through donating to research “I just hope people continue to give towards research and do the genetic testing if your family has a history of breast cancer. Keep open communication with your doctors because you are the only spokesperson for your body. Timing is everything so don’t be part of the percentile that may one day may have to say, “if only I had gotten tested sooner.”

By Connie Bowen

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

 

 

 

 

Healing Will Come…

There are a lot of things about Letisha Perry’s story that could have gone very wrong. She was thirty years old when she was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. It would be another 10 years before any “routine” mammogram would be on her calendar – but, as it turns out she did not have 10 years.

She had a “weird” feeling in her right breast. Being proactive, she visited her primary care physician who disregarded the issue because, at age 30, it was unlikely to be anything serious. Letisha pressed. Thankfully.

A specialist confirmed that the feeling Letisha had experienced was more than weird, it was cancer. The year ahead would be consumed with rounds of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, 30 rounds of radiation, and finally, reconstructive surgery.

Letisha does not dismiss the facts – the process was hard on her body and without the love and support of family and friends, she might not have persevered through the process. But for all of the science and the calculated weeks of medicines, therapies, and treatments, there was one factor that could not be quantified in Letisha’s equation – her faith.

Perhaps the scariest question any of us ever face is the “what if” question.

What if…Letisha had been satisfied with her primary care doctor’s dismissal?

What if…she herself had thought, “I am too young for this to be anything major”?

What if…she had not persisted.

But the scariest of “what if’s” became her greatest source of peace. She credited God’s grace with helping her reach a diagnosis. She believed that it was by divine intervention that she had been diagnosed and that complete healing was already at hand.

As it has a tendency to do, cancer heightens the senses. Things that Letisha had known to be true of herself before cancer were crystallized.

She had always been independent, now as family and friends tried to aid in her journey, she had to remind herself to heed the advice of her Pastor, “Let them love on you.”

Her faith had been strong, but now it was faith alone that gave her assurance. In the hardest times, she was at peace knowing that healing was to come.

Perhaps that is the assurance of research; each of us doing our part, hoping to find the answer, the solution. We know that each day, each advancement we are getting closer to a cure – the day that healing will come.

 

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

Being Their Peace…

As a society, our focal point is where it should be, on the person with cancer – but cancer is not a one person fight. It takes a community. As a community, we struggle to know how to help and what to say. We just know we need to do better. We want to do better.

Cryshaunda was 27-years old when the doctor told her she had pancreatic cancer. New mother to a 6-month old daughter, she immediately went into denial. After a few “second opinions,” reality set in and with reality came fear.

Fear that she would not make it.

Fear that she would not see her daughter grow up.

A month in, she became determined. Leveling with herself, she promised she would do all she could. All meant everything that she had done before cancer. She was a dancer, so she danced. She loved volunteer work, so she continued to look for ways to give, ways to serve.

It may have been hard to see at the time, but Cyshaunda was on her way to being cancer-free.

We often overlook the role of “our people”–our people that love us, support us, comfort us, and care for us in hard times. Our hard times can be their hardest times. The mental debate for our people can be agonizing.

They search for the right things to say or do, not sure what is best, or how to help. They are scared too, but censor their fear.

For Cryshaunda, her family had not come face to face with cancer before her diagnosis. There was no other experience to reference. They knew the facts. Pancreatic cancer. 27-years old. New mother.

They were devastated.

The fix for such emotions is not chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation. The fix is hope, peace, faith.  Cryshaunda’s advice to families who are facing cancer is, “Keep the faith. Look for God. Bet at peace and help your loved one be at peace.”

We are changing the narrative on cancer. Crysaunda is a pancreatic cancer survivor. Things are getting better. Research is making a difference.

Perhaps our support system, our people, is the bridge between a where we start when diagnosed and where science can take us – they help us see our path out, our path beyond cancer.

One day science will prevail and cancer will no longer have power in our lives. Until then, one survivors’ advice to those who want to help: Be their peace.

 

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

Still Waters…

It is not the first drop in the bucket that makes it overflow.

Life can work in a very similar way. The pieces may be manageable, but the totality is much more difficult.

Michelle Henderson was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2016. She had always been the strong one in her family.  She cried while telling her husband, in fact, she apologized to him. His side of the family had been ravaged by cancer. She knew what the words “I have cancer” would mean to him.

All of our lives are interconnected. The anxieties of generations, dripping along into a collecting pool. The death of her mother; four months later, the death of her brother; the long list of cancer occurrences on her husband’s side of the family, all adding up. Now Michelle.

Michelle went through the rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and 12 weeks of radiation. There was anxiety—enough that she would have spells of lightheadedness, even passing out on a few occasions. Her doctors initially thought these were the result of low potassium, perhaps even low magnesium, when it was simply her body’s response to anxiety.

Through it all, Michelle continued to live. She went back to school to pursue, and receive, her degree as a pharmaceutical technician. She went to church. She read her Bible and prayed for a deepened faith, a peace that surpasses understanding.

Sometimes in our weakest moments, we find our greatest strength. Michelle worked hard to maintain a strong front. Her daughter only saw her cry once. Yet, if exploding emotions have no outlet, there will eventually be a physical manifestation – the fingerprints of anxiety.

Perhaps the lesson learned is to embrace vulnerability. There is strength in allowing yourself to be weak, to show fear, to need help.

Cancer attacks the physical, but the sneak attack is the effect cancer has mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Michelle found ways to combat the silent attack from cancer, the impact of anxiety. She began exercising daily, even if it only meant walking several laps in her home or a trip to the mailbox. She ate better—limiting her diet to chicken, fish, and vegetables. She even incorporated yoga and massage to help alleviate stress.

In all of the discussion around cancer – prevention, diagnostic techniques, treatments, surgeries, and clinical trials – there is very little discussion about the effect cancer can have on a person’s state of mind.

Michelle is now a part of a community that, for better or worse, grows everyday – the community of cancer survivors. As we work to advance medicine, awaiting the day when cancer and its arsenal of attacks are completely eliminated, it is important that we give women, like Michelle, a voice in helping others.

Michelle’s voice is calm now. The voice of someone who has been through a valley, a battle and is on the other side, victorious. It is her voice and the others like her’s that will help calm the anxieties of cancer.

 

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

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.