Kathy’s enduring fight against skin cancer
Kathy, an athlete and lover of the outdoors, spent all the time she could tanning her skin. Everything changed when she was diagnosed with melanoma.
“I’m a competitor, so it really became a competition for me.”
Kathy likes to win, and she’s had practice: she's been an athlete nearly all her life, playing soccer, hockey, golf, and most of all, softball. When one softball league wasn’t enough, she’d play in two or three at a time. She competed in the World Masters Games three times. A coach, too, she was the first woman to lead a team in the Little League World Series, representing Canada in 1993.
So when she was diagnosed with malignant metastatic melanoma in 2003, it became the highest-stakes game of her life.
“It was like I got thrown in a tumble dryer,” she said.
Everything changed, practically overnight. She had to take leave from her job as a motorist insurance manager; her playing in sports was upended. But Kathy was able to keep one piece of her previous life with her: she would coach a girls’ softball team, appropriately named the Survivors, once weekly while undergoing treatment.
“I knew that those kids, and the energy from those kids, would help keep me going,” she said. “The only things that got me out of bed were to go to the bathroom and to go see those girls.”
Kathy still finds herself on the softball diamond, though she has stopped playing competitively. A close look at the logo of the Save Your Skin Foundation shows one of Kathy’s softball-era injuries: a broken pinkie in the handprint.
A lifelong sun worshipper
It was Kathy’s niece who urged her to have a mole on her back checked out by a dermatologist in 2002. Kathy had lost her father to cancer when she was younger, and another family member had just been diagnosed with melanoma. Her niece was worried given Kathy’s habits.
Kathy always preferred a tanner complexion, as opposed to the naturally fair skin of her Scottish heritage. She spent as much time as she possibly could out in the sun. She’d used at-home tanning lights when she was a teenager, and she would frequent the tanning bed at her local gym.
“I spent my whole life trying to change my skin tone,” she said. “I had an obsession with it.”
A new obsession: Fighting cancer
Now, Kathy’s obsession was fighting cancer. In 2005, it returned, having spread across one of her lungs and other vital organs. She overheard nurses telling one another that they didn’t think she would make it. She began what was then an investigational treatment – the fifth Canadian to ever undergo it.
“Well,” she said, “I was like, ‘Bring it'."
The effects of the therapy were crushing. Some days were especially hard, and “there were times I thought I would give up,” she said.
On one of those more difficult days, because all great stories have an escape scene, Kathy left the hospital in search of a hamburger.
“All I wanted was to go for a hamburger. I don’t think I even had shoes on,” she laughed, “and once I took a look at that hamburger, I threw up.”
Inside her body, though, the tumors were responding to the treatment.
“They had never seen such a quick response,” she said.
What to know about melanoma:
- Melanoma is a form of skin cancer characterized by the uncontrolled growth of pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes, in the skin.
- An estimated 324,600 new melanoma cases are diagnosed globally each year.
- Melanoma represents 1.7% of the estimated 19 million new cancer cases worldwide each year.
- In most regions of the world, melanoma occurs more frequently in men than in women.
- Around 10% of all people with melanoma have a family history of the disease.
Kathy was able to return home, but not to her old self.
In 2007, the cancer was back again, in her small intestine. Fortunately, Kathy was eligible for a new investigational treatment with a more manageable infusion schedule. She finished the treatment that same year and continues to be scanned on an annual basis.
'Helping patients live their best lives’
Since becoming a patient, Kathy has worked tirelessly to help change the game for skin cancer prevention and care. In 2006 – amid the relapse and after she was given a terminal diagnosis – she and her family started the Save Your Skin Foundation (SYSF), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers through education and advocacy.
Familiar faces from Kathy’s patient journey now work for the Foundation: some of the girls from the Survivors softball team, now grown, are on the SYSF board; one of them is the Foundation’s accountant. Both of her nieces, including the one who pushed Kathy to have her skin checked, work for the nonprofit.
“Everything we do at Save Your Skin is influenced by my journey, my hurdles, my continued hurdles,” she said.
Kathy works to ensure those same hurdles are easier for other patients to overcome. She’ll walk families through getting the right support, in hospitals and doctor’s offices, but also and especially at home.
“I tell them to be very patient with each other, and how they’re all taking on a different piece of this challenge for their loved one.”
Prevention is equally important: last year, the Foundation partnered with medical students to launch an initiative that trains hair stylists to detect signs of skin cancer. And Kathy was a critical force behind legislation in Canada banning the use of tanning beds by children and teens. Much of her focus these days is on health policy reform.
Though Kathy’s treatments have concluded for now, her work is far from done – she’s pulling extra innings to help others.
"That’s at the center of what we do,” she said, “helping patients live their best lives and survive.”
Save Your Skin Foundation (SYSF) is a patient-led organization dedicated to the fight against non-melanoma skin cancers, melanoma, and ocular melanoma through nationwide education, advocacy, and awareness initiatives. Save Your Skin Foundation is committed to playing an active role in reducing the incidence of skin cancer in Canada, and to providing compassionate support for all Canadians living with skin cancers.
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