The Power of One…

How many women have said, “I never thought it would happen to me,” only to be rocked by an unforeseen cancer diagnosis? Too many. Far too many.

Teresa Dunlap was never one of those women. She always thought she would get cancer.

Maybe it was her background in clinical research—just too aware of the odds. Maybe it was her family history – her grandmother and an aunt both died of cancer. Another aunt is a survivor. In spite of this “gut” feeling, Teresa, like so many women, was not getting her routine mammograms.

Over the weekend of her birthday, she found a lump. The lump led her to a diagnostic mammogram and, eventually, a diagnosis of stage 0 breast cancer. She is thankful for the lump. Thankful for early detection. Thankful for her life.

Teresa is now an advocate for greater access to healthcare; increased knowledge of the need for research; funding for programs that serve both the long-term and short-term fight against cancer. She recalls her own journey with cancer, the ups and downs of a journey not easily navigated.

She thinks about the millions of women who face cancer without the advantage of a scientific background, without sufficient access to healthcare, without the financial resources needed to stay afloat.  What do these women do? What happens to them?

There was a woman Teresa met while undergoing treatment. The woman drove a gas truck during the week, had her weekly cancer treatment on Friday afternoon, used the weekend to “recover” and then started to work again on Monday. This was her reality. No margin for error.

She could not afford cancer.

This is the woman Teresa is most eager to help. The woman Kay Yow would have been most eager to help—the woman who has nobody else to help her.

Teresa is also a voice of strength, encouraging women to participate in clinical trials. “The cure is not in a lab,“ she says. “My treatment worked because I stood on the shoulders of women who were stronger than me.  A lot of women participated in trials because they wanted to help. Maybe they were metastatic–they still found a way to help.”

In this fight, there are many ways to help. There are short-term needs to be met, relative to financial assistance and access to medicines. There are also long-term needs – funding for research; research that will help extend lives and enhance quality of life on our way to finding a cure. There is a worldwide team working to find answers, answers that cannot come soon enough.

Yet, the answers are coming. One woman, one drug, one life at a time. The ability for each individual story to impact the narrative on cancer. This is the power of one.

 

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

A Decade of Difference…

If it had been a decade earlier, things might have been very different.

Kelly Werner was in the car with her son, age 3, when she got the call. Her worst fears were confirmed. It was cancer.

She had been expecting the call, perhaps even the results, but nothing can prepare a person for the moment reality hits. Stage 3 HER2 positive breast cancer. Two lymph nodes were involved and the doctors could not rule out the spread of cancer beyond the breast and lymph nodes, so they treated her as if it was stage four.

It was cancer – it was an aggressive cancer.

She was 37 at the time. A mother of two young children, she remembers crying in the car.  It is a moment that her young son still remembers.

Thankfully, they were too young to remember, much less fully comprehend, all that went on – the treatments, Kelly losing her hair, the days she had to rest half way up the stairs in their home before making it all the way to the second floor.

They knew “Mommy was sick” but they never knew how sick.

As is true of so many mothers, perhaps especially young mothers, her first thoughts were of her children – the impact on them, on their futures.

The Kay Yow Cancer Fund and Kelly crossed paths because of her involvement in Burn Boot Camp, a women’s fitness organization committed to empowering women to maximize quality of life through fitness and community.

This coming Saturday, Burn Boot Camp is hosting an event in support of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund and women like Kelly who are fighting a bigger battle for quality of life.

Kelly joined the team at Burn Boot Camp to build muscle, combating the possible onset of osteoporosis, which is not a condition that concerns most women in the late thirties or early forties. As a side effect of the chemotherapy treatments, Kelly experienced an early menopause. Osteoporsis is often a threat to post-menopausal women.

We are all working toward a time when the long list of negative side effects of chemotherapy are eliminated by a total cure. Until then, we celebrate the fact that the list of negatives is shorter than it once was; shorter than it was a decade ago.

We celebrate the wins of cancer research, realizing that a decade ago, a diagnosis with an aggressive form of cancer may not have had a happy ending.

Kelly is clear on her situation; on the situation that faced her family. She is thankful. Thankful for the chance to raise her kids. Thankful for the days ahead. Thankful for cancer research.

 

For more information on the Kay Yow Cancer Fund and the fight against ALL women’s cancers, visit KayYow.com.

The True Wins of Play4Kay…

Life and death situations are a daily occurrence for Jaime Cowie. She is a first responder. By definition, she is the calmest person in every room she enters.

Daily occurrence or not, life and death is never routine. Especially when it is your own life that is in question.

In April 2017, Jamie turned 40 years old. It was a great time. Life was good. Health was a given. Being a member of the healthcare profession, she had already scheduled her first annual mammogram. It was 2 weeks away. She had no reason to believe it would be anything other than routine.

In the time between her birthday and the scheduled mammogram, she had a dull pain in her left arm that made the ordinarily simple task of lifting her arm very difficult. Being a first responder, she checked her arm, then her armpit. Finding it swollen, she continued to check her lymph nodes and left breast. She found a half-dollar sized hard lump on her breast.

The team around her acted quickly and with an appropriate sense of urgency. She was diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer. Her particular type was extremely aggressive. The course of treatment was decided, a double mastectomy followed by rounds of chemotherapy. It would be a long road.

As they say, it is not the destination, but the journey.

While Jaime’s physical journey with cancer has had its share of complications, there have been extraordinary moments of joy along the way.

Jaime, a lifelong resident of Connecticut in the center of UConn Nation, has been a fan of UConn women’s basketball since before it was the dynasty it is today. She was a fan when the 1991 team, led by Kerry Bascom, took UConn and their, now Hall of Fame coach, Geno Auriemma to the program’s first Final Four.

Having attended her first game in middle school, she admired Kerry Bascom.  So much so, she wrote her favorite Husky a letter – not expecting a response, just wanting to reach out. The All-American responded. The middle schooler never forgot and still has the letter from 1990.

Leaving a UConn game last December, Coach Auriemma’s 1,000th win led to a chance meeting between Jaime and Kerry.  The two have remained in contact.  Jaime was apprehensive about going, but with Kerry’s encouragement Jaime attended her first Play4Kay game – as a survivor.

There have been many challenges in Jaime’s life, but basketball has been a constant. A refuge from places she did not want to be.  Now facing cancer, basketball was again a source of peace and comfort.

“When the Play4Kay games were going on, even before my diagnosis, I was emotional. But when I was asked to participate as a survivor by UConn, I originally said no.  I was uncomfortable being in front of so many people  but then I realized I had a chance to show someone undergoing treatment is standing up, fighting, and functioning,” Jaime recalls.  “It was very emotional. Seeing all the pink in the crowd and the support, it meant so much to all of us. There were 12 of us on the court. 11,000 people clapping and cheering us on–to see all of that support, it was an eye-opening experience, but very uplifting. The team keeping in touch afterwards – that was my first type of being around other people that were where I had been. It helped me not feel so alone.”

Play4Kay had always been a time of inspiration, but now the game takes on new meaning. It is a personal and collective show of courage for Jaime and her team. Her UConn team, her family of first responders, her team of survivors.

She looks at the example of Kay Yow and says, “if she can do it, so can I.”  Jaime played basketball growing up and she learned you don’t stop until you hear a whistle, regarding her fight against cancer, she says, “I never heard a whistle.”

Maybe that is what Coach Yow had in mind all along. Each person being inspired to do just a little bit more than they thought they could. Giving more, living more.

This past Monday, Jaime was declared cancer free and Tuesday she finished her last IV infusion.  These are the wins of Play4Kay.

 

To learn more about the fight against ALL women’s cancers, visit KayYow.com.

Pre-viving…

Nikki Speer is a mother; a daughter; a granddaughter; a niece; a sister; a wife. She is like many women, she can be described by numerous meaningful relationships. Relationships she treasures.

But there is one more descriptor that came as a result of Nikki’s relationships, she is a “pre-vivor.”

She is one of an increasing number of women who looked at a combination of factors, genetics and family history being just two, and decided to have a double mastectomy prior to receiving a cancer diagnosis.

In 2006, Nikki’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through her own determination and the gift of cancer research, her mom lived 9 years beyond her diagnosis. Those 9 years were years that allowed her to meet her grandchildren.

Nikki’s aunt and grandmother also had breast cancer.  Having lost her mother, grandmother, and aunt to cancer, Nikki and her husband made a difficult decision to protect her future and their family. She elected to have a preventative double mastectomy.

The psychological impact on a survivor and their family is a less talked about effect of cancer. In Nikki’s case, she was motivated to reduce the threat of the disease which had already ravaged her family and her mentality. The uncertainty of the future when the past was full of cancer – this is a harsh reality faced courageously by many women and their families.

Nikki, whose strength originates from her faith, found in her journey, a chance to give strength to others.

Having experienced first hand the aftermath of a double mastectomy, Nikki developed a post-op shirt for women to help ease the physical burden of surgery. The shirt fits loosely and has interior pockets to accommodate drains. It is a gift in every way imaginable.

As we talk about beating cancer, there may be no greater example than Nikki Speer. Her family lost so much to cancer, and yet, Nikki is winning the fight. She elected to make a pre-emptive strike on cancer and now she is helping others in their journey.

Talking to Nikki, it is obvious she wants nothing more than to see cancer eliminated. She is thankful for the constantly advancing research that is giving hope to her family and many others. Research that gives both quantity and quality of life.

But, as is the case with most things, there is a gap. A gap between where we are and where we want to be. In this case, the gap is the distance until a cure is found. Nikki is helping fill the gap by making it easier for women, one at a time, to face cancer.

By her example, by her gift, she is making the difference. A difference that will beat cancer.

 

To donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, visit KayYow.com.

One Win at a Time…

There are a lot of ways to give strength. We live in a country blessed with heroes. Blessed with people who, in the circumstances of their lives, find ways to give to others. Erica Jones is one of those blessings. She is a person who, in grave circumstances, found a way to serve.

Erica was 44 years old when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. As she said, her family tree did not have breast cancer in it and she had not imagined herself being “the party starter.” Yet, she found herself – a single mother and an only child– facing the words nobody ever imagines themselves hearing, “You have breast cancer.”

Erica certainly was not expecting to hear, “You have breast cancer…and it’s an aggressive type.”

Where do you go from there?

Erica went to her faith, and faith is where she found hope.

It wasn’t easy. Her son was just starting his sophomore year of college. A collegiate football player, Erica did not want to present news that would certainly devastate.

After a second opinion revealed that the cancer had indeed spread to her lymph nodes, Erica began chemotherapy. The second treatment sent her to the ER with a week-long stay and sent her heart racing to an alarming 180 beats per minute for 2 hours straight. The fix was to stop her heart and bring it back to normal again.

Imagine.

Stopping the heart.

But isn’t that what cancer does?

The three words nobody wants to hear: “You have cancer.” These are heart-stopping words.

We hold our collective breath, waiting for relief, for good news.

Thankfully, in the case of Erica Jones and an increasing number of women, there is good news in a story that has an unwritten ending.

While treatments come to an eventual end, serving others is an ongoing process. Serving, giving. Now defining forces of Erica’s life – a life that will not be defined by cancer, but by giving strength to others.

In the time since her diagnosis, Erica started a ministry to provide healthy Cuisine Care Packages to single adults undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Her slogan is “Smiles through Trials.”  The ministry is one big ripple effect from one of the 15.5 million Americans surviving cancer, a ripple that is helping others find their way in the journey too.

Erica is just one example of how we are collectively beating cancer. One woman finishing treatment, one ministry started, one meal provided, one life changed – one win at a time.

 

To donate, or to learn more about the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, visit Kayyow.com.

Never Give Up…

Three months after she won her battle with triple negative breast cancer, Catherine Edmonds was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Thankfully, Catherine is an overachiever who is accustomed to raising above, one upping the challenge, and moving forward.

As an eighth grader, she flunked math. Thanks to a teacher who saw her potential in high school and invested in her, she went on to get her degree in math, then launch a career as an educator, first teaching math, the subject she once failed, and now leading a school system as superintendent of schools.

The focus of her life? To give back, to reinvest in children.

Having been the Cinderella in her own story many times before, cancer would provide several unique challenges and new perspectives:

As a single mother, she worried about her son’s journey as he went into his senior year of high school.

As an educator, passionately advocating for children, how would she continue to give tirelessly to the children she had devoted her life to serving?

Catherine is a strong woman, strong for herself, always strong for others. Learning to be the recipient of the strength of her family became therapeutic for all.

There were times during her chemotherapy when she wanted to give up. There were times hope was hard to see.  Ultimately, it was the very thought of giving up that pushed her to a place of empowerment, a place of courage and grace. She found her determination in her hardest thoughts and darkest moments.

She would go in for chemotherapy and from one treatment to the next, some women would no longer be there. It was a startling reminder that her own journey could end in similar fashion. “When you realize you may not have as much life ahead of you as you have behind you, you realize you need to prioritize,” Catherine says. It is a thought that is never far from her mind.

Her story is one that shows us that in so many ways we are beating cancer.

She could have given up. It would have been understandable. But she did not give up. She pressed forward. And her example?

Now her son, a young man, serving in the United States Coast Guard, draws strength from knowing that “the woman [he] came from is strong; therefore, he must be too.”

The children she impacts, the young educators she mentors? They see a relentless example that defines both giving and strength.

This is the way we beat cancer, one woman at a time who is tempted to give up, but in the end–no matter when the end comes–refuses to give up. Together, we will never give up.

 

To learn more about the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, visit KayYow.com.

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.