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.