Back to Normal

We know that life changes and “normal” is lost when the word “cancer” is introduced. Afterall, hearing about cancer and knowing cancer personally are two totally different matters.

Maybe one of the worst parts about knowing cancer is not knowing when things will become normal again.

Danielle O’Banion is a coach. She is also a cancer survivor.  She is thankful to be a survivor, very thankful– she realizes this is a team she is very blessed to be a part of.

For Danielle, “normal” is day after day of helping young women be the best they can be. Normal is airports and hotels, rental cars and layovers, a quick stop at Starbucks before spending a day in a gym, looking for the next top recruit.  Normal is practice plans and game film. Normal is walking into a gym and competing.

But cancer was a new and unknown opponent—not normal.

Danielle had been dealing with a series of women’s health issues which led her OB-GYN to recommend at least a partial hysterectomy – but it was October – basketball season was starting, and the demands of college basketball would not align with major surgery.

A few restless nights later, perhaps divine providence, Danielle reconsidered. She gave the OB-GYN a 4-day window in which she could be available for surgery, thinking that perhaps, scheduling would preclude her from having the surgery until after the season—unless it was meant to be.  If the schedule did not work, surgery would have to wait. Miraculously, the surgeon was available.

When her labs came back, it was clear things were not normal. Further testing revealed Danielle had stage 2 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Normal. When would she see normal again? Would normal ever be the same?

As the cancer treatment to save her life and basketball season which was her life intertwined, it became apparent that there would be, at least that season, a new normal.

Back injections on one day, flying to the next game the following day. Six rounds of chemotherapy and conference play. An outpouring of support from a nation of coaches. Well wishers cheering her on at every gym on the schedule. This was the new normal.

Ultimately, normal is a luxury most of us take for granted. The opportunity to readily “get back to normal” is something we don’t realize we should cherish.

Danielle is now cancer free and basketball season is here once again. Her days are likely as close to normal as they have been since she was diagnosed in 2014.  As a coach, each win is celebrated. This win must be the biggest. Beating cancer and getting back to normal.  It is the win all of us are going for – the ultimate win.


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

A Lot to Live For…

Michelle Fladung has a three-year-old granddaughter. She looks forward to watching her go to her first day of kindergarten. She looks forward to a lot of future milestones for her granddaughter – milestones she plans to see in person. As Michelle says, “I have a lot to live for.”

“A lot to live for” is a commonly used phrase in our culture. Yet, it doesn’t seem overused. But then again, could this exact phrase ever actually be overused?

Overused or not, when this phrase comes out of the mouth of a stage 4 ovarian cancer survivor, it comes out in bold, italicized, underlined font. It is strong.

2014 was not a good year for Michelle Fladung. She lost her mother on October 9, 2014, had surgery to repair a hernia on October 13, 2014 and, in the process of repairing the hernia, doctors discovered she had stage 4 ovarian cancer. Yet, in retrospect, she does make note of two huge blessings:

  • Michelle is extremely thankful that her beloved mother never knew that she had cancer.
  • Had it not been for the hernia, the ovarian cancer discovery would likely have been made way too late.

They say ovarian cancer is the “silent killer.” It presents very few detectable symptoms until, too often, it is too late.  For Michelle, it was almost too late. Her type of ovarian cancer has a 17% 5-year survival rate. She is in year 4. She feels better than she has at any time over the past 3 years.  She is strong.

Michelle attributes her current good health to cancer research. Over the past three years, she has been a part of two clinical trials, leading to this most recent round of treatment – a cutting edge drug that is providing a quality of life Michelle hasn’t experienced since 2014.  In fact, it is so cutting edge, Michelle is the first patient at Duke Cancer Center to receive this treatment outside of a clinical trial.

The term “clinical trial” sounds institutionalized, but in real life, the words “clinical trial” translate into “hope.”

Lots of hope.

Hope for the future, a better future. Hope for more days and time to make memories with a granddaughter who will one day understand the strength of her grandmother.

As thanksgiving approaches, we think about all the things we are thankful for. It turns out very few of them are “things.” Most of them are people. Some of them are ideals. We are thankful for the hope that research can provide, but most of all, we are thankful for the people that research can give us more time to enjoy, people like Michelle.


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

Quality of Life…

Pam and Richard Sykes value quality of life. For four decades of young men, they were quality of life.

We talk a lot about the importance of raising money for cancer research. Yes, it is very important. In fact, it is critical to being able to eventually eliminate cancer. Without money for research, cancer will continue to hold our hearts in its grip.

While our focus continues to be finding a cure, the advancements that are being made are helping limit the negative side effects of treatments, enhancing quality of life.

Pam Sykes was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in the fall of 2010. The original diagnosis was nothing but positive, the second opinion agreed. It was an imaginably difficult time, but the Sykes’ were thankful it was not any worse.

On January 4, 2011, Pam went in for surgery.  The post-surgical report revealed that in the weeks since her diagnosis, her cancer had advanced. What had been stage 1 breast cancer in November, was now stage 3 in January. Lymph nodes were involved, chemotherapy would be necessary. The Sykes’ were devastated.

Quality of life. It seems simple, but ultimately it embodies every ideal we all have.

Pam reflects on the time after her first round of chemo. She truly felt like she might die. She may have even questioned whether or not taking the treatment would be worth it – but if she had doubts, her family did not. They supported her and encouraged her to persevere.

And persevere she did.

Quality of life can mean lot of things. It can mean life free of cancer. It can mean facing cancer and enduring fewer negative side effects along the way.

But there is more to life than the physical. Often times it is the mental, emotional, and spiritual boosts that we receive that really give us true quality of life.

Coach Yow liked to say, “First you receive, then you give.” When it comes to “boosts,” Pam has given and received.

For 46 years, Richard Sykes led NC State’s men’s golf team. Over that time, the Sykes opened their home and their hearts to these players, creating a family for young men to be a part of, many of whom were hundreds, if not thousands of miles from home. She created a home for them. She gave them the boost.

Since the time of her diagnosis, Pam has participated in numerous Play4Kay events at NC State – as a survivor being honored at women’s basketball’s annual Play4Kay game, doing the coin toss for the Kay Yow Spring Game for Wolfpack football, even throwing out the first pitch to open softball season one year. Pam remembers the emotion of each of those events – the boost she received.

The amazing part is that as we honor the survivors among us, we give and we receive. We give our support, the idea that no battle is fought alone. They give us hope that one day there will be less side effects, less cancer, more quality of life. We all get a boost.


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

The Next Day…

Life is so often a story of contrasting moments. Contrasting emotions. The highs in stark contrast to the lows.

When it comes to cancer, each day can be its own microcosm of the full emotional spectrum. Some days start with challenges; all days require hope. Jeanne Frazer has experienced the cancer rollercoaster in full force.

Jeanne is a horse lover, business owner and survivor – a type 1 diabetic, stage 4 lymphoma survivor, to be more specific.

Eight years ago, yes 8 years, Jeanne was diagnosed with lymphoma after a biopsy revealed that numerous lumps were indeed cancerous. For Jeanne, whose father and grandfather both died of cancer, it was a devastating shock. The sort of shock that can leave even the most optimistic of people in a state of fear.

The news came around Thanksgiving. Jeanne pushed to start treatment prior to Christmas. With the first round of treatments scheduled, Jeanne turned her focus to things that seemed more controllable. As she said, “she got her affairs in order.” She spent more time with family and held onto the healing power of being at the barn with horses and friends.

As a diabetic, a critical aspect of her health hinged on managing the life-threatening impact of the steroids and chemotherapy on her blood sugar.  Her normally upbeat endocrinologist warned, “call me when you are in the hospital…and you will be in the hospital.”  This statement alone was cause for alarm.

From alarm and dread to hope and joy.

When she arrived for her first treatment, Jeanne received incredible news that, just the day before, a German medical team had a breakthrough in research, yielding a drug combination that was far less toxic, yet even more effective – a drug that would alter the course of her treatment plan.

Suddenly, hope. Great hope.

Contrasting moments. One moment, she had been a diabetic in stage 4 cancer with a very difficult family history to overcome. In the next moment, she learned she would be the beneficiary of cutting-edge research, research that she credits with making her treatment much easier and keeping her out of the hospital, maybe even saving her life.

Research has now given Jeanne 8 years cancer free. Time to spend with family, friends and horses!

There are times we all question the progress we are making in the global fight against cancer. Jeanne is living proof that cancer research is making a difference. Cancer research gave Jeanne hope. Cancer research gave her life – the ultimate gift.


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


It might seem like a simple thing. Perhaps even an easy thing. When you break it down, it is not simple or easy, but it is so important.

“Please don’t edit for me.”

That was Kathy Brawn’s biggest request of her group of 18-22-year-old soccer players at Colgate University. Kathy is a coach. Her sport is life. Her team, her staff—they are family.

Maybe it is the way of coaches – the ability to set a goal, engineer a plan, and stay focused on the end result. Maybe, in this case, it was a survival instinct kicking into overdrive. Whatever the case, when Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer, she pushed worry aside and focused on her treatments and the goal—beating cancer.

But there was one concern.  Her team.

How would they respond? It wasn’t a question of how they would perform on the field, the question was bigger.  How would their coach’s battle with cancer impact their young lives? As it turns out, many of them were already too familiar with cancer. Now this.

Thus, her request, “Please don’t edit for me.”

Kathy met with her team, stating her request. She provided the example that 3 days prior, a player had asked her to write a recommendation. She happily wrote the letter. She explained that she hoped that 3 days later, after the news of her cancer, her players would still make such requests. After all, she had cancer when she wrote the first letter. Why wouldn’t she write another, and another?

Bottom line, she did not want life to change. Even more importantly, she did not want the people she loved the most to change. She wanted to be given the option to be normal. If she had to take things a bit slower, that would be her decision.

It is a simple request, but one alludes so many of the “helpful.” It seems many survivors, in the midst of an uncertain journey, desire normalcy. For those eager to provide support, the tendency is to edit.

Editing is the problem with cancer. Too often, it is the editor of lives – making unwelcome, uninvited changes.  Usually right when the story was getting good.

Kathy, like Coach Yow, considers herself fortunate to have been able to continue coaching, continue living a full life, even in the midst of adversity. Her family, friends, neighbors, her staff, Alyssa Manoogian (Colgate ’13) and Jenna Gibney (Colgate ’15) provided the best kind of support. The unedited, unabridged kind that lets the author make decisions.

Their support was the variable that allowed Kathy to continue her journey, not deviating from the life she loved.

Cancer does change us. It changes all of us — the person with the cancer and the loved ones who want so desperately to help.  We continue to rally in support of one another until the time when we can celebrate that cancer has officially been edited out of our story.


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

Survivor Strong…

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

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

Cancer survivor.

But never weak. Always strong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true of Rachelle.

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


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

Beginning to End

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

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

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

The end of cancer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Disease of the People

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

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

Big deals happen to other people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hardest part is the people.

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

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

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

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


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

Beyond the Game…

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

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

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

Sylvia Hatchell and Kay Yow were united by both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Measuring Strength…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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