After the Lady Vols basketball game on Monday, I mentioned to Dan Fleser, the beat writer for the News Sentinel and also a cancer survivor, that I was grateful to be able to watch this year’s pink game in person and it would be nearly a year to the day since I had surgery. Fleser, who has well-honed journalism instincts, replied that I should write a first-person piece about it. So, here it is.
I had always supported the various pink games in women’s basketball and other sports. I wore the ribbons, made donations, bought game-used jerseys at auctions and visited the educational booths, picked up fliers and thanked the volunteers for their efforts.
Then, on Dec. 2, 2012, I found a lump in my breast. It was the morning of Tennessee’s game against North Carolina and I did what I always do for home games – I went to Thompson-Boling Arena to cover the Lady Vols for InsideTennessee.com. That routine would ultimately become a recurring theme and a godsend for my sanity.
I called my doctor the next day to set up an appointment – and I had just had a checkup two weeks before and there was no sign of a lump – so initially we thought it was a cyst of some type. But a mammogram was scheduled to be certain. At that point, everything seemed routine and precautionary.
The mammogram was done a week later and then an ultrasound was ordered and a second radiologist was called into the room to look at the images.
I was told to get a biopsy. I asked if that was a precaution only. I was told it was a necessity. Any woman or man who has been through this process understands the fear that starts to take over at that point. But I focused on covering basketball.
On Dec. 13, I underwent the biopsy and a second mammogram. I studied the faces of those examining me and at that point, I knew I had cancer. I asked to speak to the doctor, explained I was a reporter and did much better if I had information, and he said every indication was that I had cancer but the pathology report would confirm it. I went home, went into my office, turned off the lights and cried.
The doctor called Dec. 14 and told me the words I already knew but still was shaken to the core to hear: You have breast cancer. He explained in more detail, and I took notes. It seemed like the best thing to do and it helped me focus.
It was midday Friday afternoon. I called my mother in Washington, D.C., with the news. I had waited until I knew for sure and it was a brutally emotional conversation. I asked her to call my sister and brother, as I couldn’t get through two more conversations like that. I could deal with it better if they knew and then called me, which is exactly what they did.
I was scheduled to depart for Texas the next morning for the Lady Vols two-game series against Texas and Baylor. I wanted to retreat to that dark room and stay there. But I knew if I did that, I would let the diagnosis dictate my life, and I decided to take control as best I could.
So, I texted Eric Trainer, who handles media relations and knew I had been awaiting medical test results that could affect travel, to tell him I was going to Texas. I told him the diagnosis and said it was OK to tell the staff, especially Holly Warlick, who, along with Nikki Caldwell, established Champions for a Cause. He told the coaches after practice.
As soon as practice ended, Warlick called to express sorrow and support. Text messages quickly followed from assistant coach Dean Lockwood and Jenny Moshak, then the team’s chief of sports medicine.
I shifted my focus to packing and getting ready to fly to Texas early Saturday morning. I wanted to reclaim some normalcy, and covering Lady Vols basketball delivered that chance.
While walking through the Dallas airport to catch my connecting flight to Austin, my nephew called from North Carolina. He told me he loved me and that I was going to be fine. His words were powerful and so upbeat. It was another reminder to stay strong and keep living.
I arrived early for Saturday’s practice in Austin and sat courtside to watch. Several staff members were aware of the diagnosis and offered hugs and support. Every word resonated and helped. And then Sunday, while standing on the baseline to shoot photos of warmups, Cierra Burdick draped an arm around me, said she was praying for me and went back to shooting. It was moments like this that made me know I made the right decision to immediately get back to work.
I continued to cover the team, travel and keep my life as normal as possible. The next two months were an assortment of tests and procedures and consultations with my surgeon to determine the best approach. I opted for a double mastectomy, and the surgery date was set for Feb. 15, 2013.
By Feb. 17, I was out of the hospital and in that recliner watching the Lady Vols take on Vanderbilt in the “Think Pink” game to raise awareness for breast cancer. I watched on TV and interacted via social media – Burdick had written my name on one of her pink basketball shoes and the Lady Vols posted a photo via Twitter – with drain tubes coming out of my chest, which was now adorned with two deep scars.
I listened to the post-game press conference during which Warlick talked about presenting a game ball to her sister, who was battling breast cancer, and said her foundation was working to find a cure. She mentioned that I also was fighting breast cancer. It was another tearful moment, but just like the one with Burdick in Texas, it was emotion layered with smiles.
From the time I found the lump to the day I had surgery, I had been overwhelmed with support from text messages to phone calls to cards to social media posts. A week after surgery, I was back to covering games. Michael Beaumont, the basketball program’s director of operations, would find me on the baseline before every game when I was taking photos and ask how I was doing. Lockwood expressed support on a regular basis, as did Trainer and Moshak.
I heard from fans every day, via social media, email and InsideTennessee.com’s message boards. One of the board posters turned out to be a renowned oncologist in Oregon and became an invaluable source of support and information.
When I was at that crossroads in December of 2012, I had two options – retreat into a shell or keep living. I chose the latter.
My prognosis is excellent because I found the lump early and acted immediately. I was aware of the importance of breast checks and being aware of any changes thanks to the tremendous outreach of groups like Champions for a Cause and events like “Live Pink, Bleed Orange.”
Sunday’s game is another chance to educate people about breast cancer and the importance of mammograms and to raise funds for a cure. The Lady Vols website has info about the game and events.
I have read at times some backlash about these “pink” games in all sports – that the money could just be donated directly to groups instead of used for T-shirts and promotions. I never agreed because I always saw the events as a coordinated education program that got people’s attention from reminders to get mammograms or donate and help patients.
It wasn’t until I got breast cancer that I realized another benefit of these events. It makes you feel connected at a time when you need that most. I won’t downplay the fear that comes with the diagnosis. There were sleepless nights and moments of panic. It remains a life-changing event. Two weeks of rib pain is no longer just pain. It means a doctor’s visit and a bone scan, which ironically was done last December, a year after I first found the lump, sending me back into that limbo of not knowing during the week I waited to set up the procedure. Fortunately, the scan came back clean. The pain is a side effect of medication and is manageable.
Throughout this process, I never felt alone. And events like “Live Pink, Bleed Orange” were part of the reason. It is a reminder of how much people care and want to help. Seeing those pink-and-white T-shirts draped over thousands of chairs is somehow comforting. It tells survivors and fighters – and those who love them – that you are not alone.
I am blessed to be able to watch the Tennessee-Kentucky game on Sunday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena from press row. I am blessed to be able to mark my first full year of being a cancer survivor.
And I am grateful for everyone in that arena who is wearing pink.
I continue to cover the Lady Vols as a freelance writer. Last September, I accepted a job with Moxley Carmichael, East Tennessee's premier public relations firm, as a full-time writer/editor. The job was a godsend and I remain grateful to Cynthia Moxley and Alan Carmichael, two longtime friends and colleagues, for the opportunity to work for their firm.