She’s been married 37 years to Carmine, the guy she knew she’d marry after one date. Kathy and Carmine’s lives are filled with love, laughter music and dancing. So very much dancing. But the dance almost ended six years ago.
After weeks of back pain that she attributed to “too much reaching for high shelves,” the woman who danced found herself unable to walk. She visited a chiropractor, who ran x-rays and had her whisked directly to the emergency room, where they soon diagnosed breast cancer that had spread.
It was the beginning of a cancer maelstrom. Kathy recalls her oncologists’ words as she began the whirlwind of treatments that would keep her going.
“You have Stage 4 breast cancer, metastatic. But I’m going to take care of you. You’re going to have a long life.” Kathy has held onto that promise in the years since her diagnosis. Through treatments and more treatments, good scans and bad, Kathy’s faith in her medical team is strong. “My doctor is always three steps ahead of all my treatments. If anything shows up, she’s going to handle it like she has for the past five and a half years.”
She brooked no nonsense when visitors came to comfort her. “My family and friends would come into my room and start crying. I’d chase them out of the room,” she laughs. “There was no negativity allowed.” That focus on positive thinking is still part of her outlook today. “I’ve learned that although you have a horrible disease, you don’t have to give up on life. You can smile. You can enjoy your life. I think being positive is the best medicine and I know it’s helped me immensely.”
Today, she serves as a Support Volunteer through Cancer Hope Network. The patients she’s matched with call her “my Kathy” and reach out when times are especially difficult.
“I would like to give a special honor to my mentor Kathy,” emailed one client. “She has encouraged me so much. When I first started, I was so discouraged and without hope. My Kathy was the sunshine in my life who brightened up my day with a smile and joy and hope for days to come.”
The lifelong lover of horse racing (“My grandparents lived in Red Bank which is 10 minutes away from Monmouth Park. My dad would go to put in a couple of bets and I’d tag along. I’ve been going there since I was five years old.”) was diagnosed the weekend of the Kentucky Derby.
She treasures the kindness and support offered by her friends and family – from bringing her food while she was in the hospital and then rehab (“My husband asked what I wanted for dinner, I jokingly said lobster. Not long later, I was sitting there, eating lobster.”), stopping by just to spend time (“Neighbors would stop to ask if I needed anything from the store, cousins would call and say they were bringing lunch.”) and help in practical ways (“My sister would come and clean my house.”). It was difficult for her to adjust to accepting help, but she learned.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want people to do anything. Then I realized that if I let them do something, it was going to make THEM feel a lot better. I tell my matches that if someone wants to do a little something, let them,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be anything outlandish. Sometimes, those ordinary moments are the best moments. The little things mean so much more than the big.”
“I was so upset that I was missing the start of the season at Monmouth Park and knew I wouldn’t be able to go for a long time. When I got out of rehab, I was out of my wheelchair, but could get around with my walker. My brother picked me up one day, drove me to the park, brought a comfortable chair and ran up and made all my bets for me. It was the best thing that anyone’s ever done for me,” she recalls fondly.
This year, she’ll celebrate the sixth anniversary of that dark time by fulfilling her life’s dream: visiting Churchill Downs. She’s been selected as one of 145 participants in the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade. The parade is “a march of breast and ovarian cancer survivors, which takes place on Churchill Downs’ historic racetrack.”
She encourages other survivors and thrivers to consider serving as Support Volunteers. “I want something positive to come out of me being sick. The positive thing for me is to encourage people to live. I do.” She pauses, with the realistic thoughtfulness of someone who has been on and off of chemotherapy for more than five years. “You have your little setbacks. But keep living. If I can help one person get through this, it will be worth it. And I’ve helped a lot of people.”
Sarah Miretti Cassidy is the Director of External Affairs for Cancer Hope Network.