Winning the Battle

By Mary Gravley

I was diagnosed with non-invasive ductal carcinoma in situ in 2011 after a routine mammogram that I nearly missed. I never felt a lump but instinct and timing get the credit for the quick diagnosis. My insurance company sent me a letter stating my annual exam was six months overdue. I made an appointment the following day. A call back and ultra sound found suspicious calcifications deep in my left breast. The radiologist went with his gut and recommended a biopsy instead of waiting the standard 6 months for a follow-up. It was positive. One week later, on October 3rd, a lumpectomy removed all cancer and a large margin of good tissue. Additional treatment included radiation and Tamoxifen. Early detection was critical. Pathology results found an aggressive cancer. Waiting 6 months would have produced a much different outcome and treatment.

At 49, I was the first in my family of 6 women to have breast cancer. My father died of lung cancer one year earlier. I knew I couldn’t fight this alone. It took the love, prayers, encouragement, and support of faith, family, friends, strangers, and doctors. My husband is my rock! As a local sports anchor, Jeff spent a lot of time interviewing Coach Kay Yow during her battle with this disease. The interviews included her oncologist Dr. Mark Graham. When I was diagnosed, it was an easy decision who to talk to next. Dr. Graham met with Jeff and me one evening for 2 hours to discuss my options for surgery and post op. Oncologists are special people as I learned with my father’s own doctor. They spend a great deal of time listening and providing information with their patients. Dr. Graham is no exception. I quickly learned to schedule and allow plenty of time before and after appointments.

Getting the diagnosis was difficult. Giving the news to my 17-year-old daughter could have been a lot harder, but again, timing was in my favor. One month before my diagnosis, Megan began a high school class project raising funds for cancer research. She and two classmates spent 5 months organizing The Peak City Gala of Hope. After completing radiation, I felt comfortable enough to go public. At Megan’s request, I became one of the many cancer survivors for the event and their inspiration. It wasn’t easy at first. Every time I mentioned the C word my lip would quiver and heart beat faster. With love, support and time, I got stronger. As it turned out, Megan and her friends were my inspiration. The gala raised $30,000.

Five years later, I remain cancer free. Each follow-up appointment with the oncologist brings some expected anxiety followed by a sigh of relief. Dr. Graham still spends as much time with me now as he did the first visit. My best advice to others is to follow your gut and trust your instincts. You’ll get lots advice both good and bad. Do what is best for you.

I have found it so encouraging to be around other survivors. When I participate in the Play4Kay game at NC State each February, or the Kay Yow Cancer Fund Celebration Run/Walk, I am uplifted by the connection we share through a common journey.  There is no such thing as “a little bit of cancer.” The diagnosis changed my life, but thanks to the team of support around me, I am winning the battle!

To make a donation to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.

A Grateful Heart…

Scared. Grieving. Angry. Shocked. All powerful emotions. Emotions that naturally accompany a cancer diagnosis.

Beautiful. Lovely. Grateful. Blessed. Words in stark contrast to the raw emotions created by cancer, and yet words that also seem to be the heartbeat of a survivor.

As Betsy Campbell talks about her recent battle with breast cancer, it is apparent that she has been through the stages of grief, but the blessing of early detection, the blessing of another day dictates a spirit of intense gratitude. Gratitude for the unwavering support, encouragement, and love of friends, family, and women she barely knew when she was diagnosed—women who have become family as a result of their shared battle.

There is no small battle when the opponent is cancer. While each diagnosis is different, the shock wave of a diagnosis has undeniable repercussions.  Betsy is now in a position to look back at all of the blessings that have transpired over the course of the months since her cancer was detected — The 3D mammogram that caught her cancer in the earliest stage; her geographical location, allowing her to take advantage of some of the top medical facilities in the country; a loving and supportive husband; an intimacy with other women who understand the challenges of facing cancer.

For Betsy, the greatest challenge is now heightened, but it is a challenge we can all relate to – the need to live every day, not in fear of the future, but with gratitude for the present.

Suddenly all of Coach Yow’s life lessons come to the forefront:

“Never let the urgent get in the way of the important.”

“Give and pray for others.  Count your blessings.”

“Live one moment at a time.”

“Be thankful every day.”

We know cancer is a formidable opponent—a powerful enemy. But, maybe the power of cancer is not in the cancer itself, but in the spirit of survivors. The spirit of Betsy, of Coach Yow. The spirit of grateful hearts.


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

Inspired to Continue

The truth is, Coach Kay Yow was inspired by a lot of people. She was grounded in her faith and she saw the very best in everyone she encountered. It was that outlook that enabled her to draw inspiration from literally, thousands of people, many of whom she never met.

And yet, it still seems like a tall task—to inspire the inspiration. Coach Yow was the inspiration for a lot of things. It was her vision that launched the Kay Yow Cancer Fund—her vision that provided the fuel for the Play4Kay movement.

Susan Williams is also an inspiring lady. She is someone who graciously faces the day to day battles and victories of life with optimism and faith. Her battle with cancer started in 2006, but in many ways, many good ways, it continues.

Susan tells her story as all great mothers do—her reference points begin and end with the ages of her children. Her oldest son was a senior in high school. Her younger children, twins, Blair and Chris, were in 8th grade. Susan remembers that all three kids responded in different ways to the news of their mother’s diagnosis. Blair did not say much that evening. She really didn’t say very much for a few weeks, but the signs of a child who was deeply affected were there–A few days later, Susan noticed a breast cancer ribbon on the cover of Blair’s notebook, a pink shoelace in her basketball shoes. Little things –at first.

As the kids dealt with the news, focus shifted to the course of treatment. The diagnosis seemed to be fairly straightforward. A lumpectomy followed by several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation should take care of it. Still, there were decisions to be made. Susan did not want to live in fear of the next mammogram.

Once written, can the word “cancer” ever be erased from a life?

The decision was made to have a double mastectomy. The surgery was a success.

While Susan’s surgery was a success, the battle against cancer is a process. Blair watched her mom’s battle with cancer unfold against the backdrop of Kay Yow, facing her latest recurrence of cancer, on the verge of turning her public battle into a national platform. A platform to serve, to inspire.

Growing up just minutes from NC State’s campus, Blair followed the Wolfpack Women and looked up to their leader, Kay Yow – attending her camps each summer. Now a freshman in high school, with Susan’s surgery behind them, Blair decided to launch a project. She would create a Play4Kay game at Athens Drive High School. She would build it each year. She would train her successor and hand it off. It would continue. She promised Coach Yow. She inspired Coach Yow.

On January 23, 2009, Blair hosted her 2nd annual Play4Kay game at Athens Drive High School. Coach Yow looked forward to watching the media coverage from her hospital room at WakeMed in Raleigh. The next morning, January 24, 2009, Coach Yow passed away after a 22-year battle with cancer.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Blair Williams raised over $12,000 in support of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund during her 4 years in high school. She handed her project off to a teammate and the story continued…

In addition to Blair’s efforts, Susan’s husband, Phil, also got involved. Phil had been supportive of Susan’s battle with breast cancer from day one. In fact, it was Phil who suggested the double mastectomy, to be as proactive with Susan’s health as possible. In the years since, Phil has worked to get the Kay Yow Cancer Fund approved as a beneficiary of Duke Energy’s Employee Giving program.

Susan Williams is an inspiring lady. She inspired Phil. She inspired Blair. Blair inspired Coach Yow. Coach Yow is still inspiring all of us to continue the fight!

To support the continuing battle against cancer, click here.

Writing Her Own Chapter…

It is a recurring theme. But it never gets old.

Jerilyn Hughes wants to help others. She says she is part of a sisterhood. Maybe her story could inspire another woman, perhaps lift her up during a low time.

We met Jerilyn at a women’s basketball recruiting event where she was there to support her daughter, Kenzie. It turns out Kenzie has been a big supporter of her mom, too.

Jerilyn was diagnosed with breast cancer in November after a routine mammogram.  The prognosis was good. It was a small spot on her left breast, caught early, likely to be managed with a lumpectomy and several rounds of radiation. Outlook: Strong.

But, for Jerilyn, it wasn’t just a question of outlook, it was a question of mentality. Who, or what, would write the story of Jerilyn’s life. She knew cancer was just a chapter, but she wanted to write it herself. More to the point, she wanted this chapter to have an ending.

Jerilyn began the process of researching her options. She wanted to have choices and make her own decisions. She decided to be proactive, to deliver the knock out blow to cancer herself. A bilateral mastectomy.

Jerilyn has two daughters. She is using her cancer to teach her daughters. They are very likely learning about science: The ins and outs of a bilateral mastectomy, reconstructive medicine; the difference in the blood supply for skin versus tissue. Beyond the technicalities, even more likely, their Mom is teaching them how to fight.

When the process is finished, Jerilyn will have had 5 surgeries. One of those surgeries revealed that the cancer was not as small as it was once thought to be, it was actually all over her left breast. Thank goodness Jerilyn’s fight against cancer began with a fight for the course of action she wanted.

Action. Not treatment. Treatment implies a reactive approach. Jerilyn is not reactive – neither was Coach Yow. The comparison of two women, two survivors, moves beyond a diagnosis and on to a mentality. A mentality to fight and to win. Coach Yow won her battle against cancer by starting the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Jerilyn will win her battle by helping other women fight and win their own battles.

It is a common thread among survivors: Each wanting to elevate the next, until the day this chapter ends.


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

A Story of Hope, A Story of Survival

As is always the case, fate writes a far better story than any of us ever could.

This is a story of a mother, her daughter, and their coach. It is a story of faith and hope, courage and conviction, suffering and…then joy.

When Hanna Halteman visited the campus of North Carolina State University as a junior in high school, she could never have imagined exactly what it would mean to play for Coach Kay Yow. Her mother, JoEllen, prayed for a woman that would be a mentor to her daughter; a woman that she could trust with the next four years of her daughter’s life; a mother figure that would lead Hanna into adulthood. It seems God answered a lot of prayers through Kay Yow. He answered JoEllen’s prayer through Coach Yow’s mentorship of Hanna.  What JoEllen could never have realized is that Kay would become as much her coach as she would Hanna’s.

Hanna has a uniquely remarkable perspective.  She vividly remembers her last visit with Coach Yow. A visit Hanna calls “Her gift to us.”  In that visit a lot of people said a lot of things. Hanna told Coach Yow that she was grateful for the opportunity that she had given her—that she wanted to honor her. To which Coach Yow said, “I know that, Hanna. I know you will.”

Then the team and travel party left Wake Medical where Coach Yow had been for over three weeks and departed for their game in Miami.

That was January 21. On the morning of January 24, Coach Yow passed away.

A lot of Coach Yow’s lessons seemed so big that day. They got even bigger for Hanna when JoEllen was diagnosed several years later with stage 2 cervical cancer.

Both Hanna and JoEllen had noticed that, throughout her battle, Coach Yow seemed to have a sense of peace. This unmistakable calm was always with Coach Yow.  It was her essence. She never seemed to be without it. JoEllen quickly found herself at peace in her own battle. “I kept my sights on God. Watching Coach Yow, I always wondered how she did it — to weather the storm with grace and beauty and strength. Keeping her eyes set on Christ. Coach Yow embodied her faith in God. I never truly understood it until I went through it. I had an incredible role model in Coach Yow. It was like she became my coach too.”

For Hanna and JoEllen, the annual Play4Kay game at NC State is now more personal than ever. Hanna’s role has gone from that of player, supporting her courageous coach, to daughter, supporting her equally courageous mom—in Hanna’s words, “an extension of myself.”  The “sisterhood” of survivors that annually gather at the Play4Kay game became a shining light through difficult days for JoEllen.

This past February, as Hanna and JoEllen prepared to make their way out onto Kay Yow Court for the annual survivor celebration, a fellow survivor came up, beaming. She was so glad to see the mother-daughter team that had been so encouraging to her the year before, during her darkest days. When the time came, all three went out onto the floor, in celebration, just as Coach Yow envisioned—survivors lifting up survivors, daughters celebrating mothers, women facing cancer with grace, courage, and peace – the essence of Coach Yow.


If you wish to make a donation to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, click here.