By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
As the NFL wraps up October's CrucialCatch: All Cancer Awareness Month, survivor, Amy Kocurek, peels back the pink ribbon to reveal the hard truth about breast cancer.
Amy is the wife of Detroit Lions defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek. At age 36, just one month before their wedding, Amy inadvertently brushed against her breast and coming fate. It was the 2015 Pro Bowl and Amy wasn't feeling like her usual self. She was unusually tired and had been experiencing tingling down her right arm and leg.
"Looking back, I was completely unaware of my body," she admits. "I didn't think I needed to be at my age. Check for lumps? Why would I at 36? We had no history of cancer in our family and mammograms don't start until the age of 40."
Amy was diagnosed with Stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer. Because of the tingling, there was a two- week period where doctors thought the cancer had spread to her bones. This would have led to a Stage 4 diagnosis - incurable. Turns out the tumor was resting on Amy's nerves and causing the numbness.
For Amy, the hard truth behind the ribbon is that while many see pink and think cure, for many of her friends in Stage 4, there is no real cure to date.
"Sometimes, I think people assume that all breast cancer is curable," Amy says. "I have friends who are Stage 4 and they are dealing with a lifetime of treatment. While the message is positive and has done so much to spread awareness and raise funds for breast cancer research, there is so much more behind each ribbon."
Amy's pink ribbon would go on to represent six rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and six more months of targeted IV therapy. It would also represent three months of deep depression, anger, insecurity and mourning.
"Cancer took so much from me," Amy admits. "It took everything from me. Everything I was doing. I had to change. I wasn't getting married in a month. I wasn't having kids - ever. I couldn't preserve my eggs because my cancer was so aggressive. It took that chance that I could have my own baby away. It took my work away. It took my walks and trips and time with friends away. Oh, - it took my breasts and my hair. Breast cancer strips a woman, you know? It takes everything that we think makes us beautiful, what everyone in the world stereotypes as our beauty on the outside, and when it's done with that, it moves on to the inside, and strips away our security and our confidence."
Amy is stoic in admitting that for over a three-month period, cancer was beating her down. Fears about her future, focus on her losses, insecurities about her physical changes left only a shell of the woman she once was.
This is the side of the ribbon she would like you to see. The reality of cancer's wrath. The reality that no matter your age or your history, breast cancer can invade your body and your life. The reality that with the disease can come darkness and possible sinking depression.
During Amy's darkest hours she spent much time crying - just curling up in her mom's arms and crying her heart out.
"I cried that I would never get better. I cried for the loss of motherhood. I cried that I would never get married. I cried for Kris who didn't sign up for this. I worried I would never come back to be the person I was. I worried that even if I beat cancer, it would just come back - all the while my mom rocked me and held me through it all.”
At her most vulnerable point Kris stepped in and changed the game plan.
"Kris was in the moment," Amy says. "He would say, 'Amy these worries are so out of reach. Those are things we have no control over. They are so far in the future - you're not even there yet. I need you to focus on you being better and we need to deal with each day as it comes. Today we deal with today. Today will be over and tomorrow will start and tomorrow we'll deal with tomorrow and we'll get through tomorrow. Yesterday is over and tomorrow hasn't started - so we will deal with today.' He would say, 'You are not going to beat this crying on the couch or sulking in your sorrows. I need you. You need to get up and you need fight through this.' He was basically laying down the line for me in such a coaching way, but also a loving way. To him I would say, 'I'm not your player, you know?' But in reality, I knew it was working."
February 5, 2018 marks three years since Amy's diagnosis. She is cancer-free and on a mission to spread awareness. She is a huge advocate of Genentech; the drug she credits for saving her life. She is very active with the Lions organization and community. What's more, she is stronger for having beat both the disease and the depression.
"When I finally came out of that devastation - with a lot of praying and a lot of support from my family and friends - I finally reached a peak and said, 'That's it - I'm going to get better,'" Amy says, reflecting back. "I will never allow myself to go back to that dark place. I truly thought I was going to have to commit myself. I didn't think I would ever come out of it. The fact that I did, and even with being told we will not be able to have a baby, has empowered me to beat the odds, and that includes having our miracle baby. I will never let myself lose hope or get that depressed again. Kris and I have each other. I am alive. There's no going back to that. I can't. I won't."
Yes, cancer took away much from Amy. But it also awoken a strength in her that she didn't know she had.
"When I was sick, people would say, 'You're to be a better person when this is over.' I would think, ‘What a silly thing to say to me.’ I would question, ‘Am I not a good person? I'm positive. I'm loving.’ But, you know, they were right. Now I know what they were saying. You just appreciate every second of life. You appreciate the people in your life and extend yourself to the people outside of it. Cancer made me pay attention to small details, to take time out for little moments, to not take anything for granted."
Cancer also gave Amy a platform.
"I feel like God had a plan for me to help others and get the message out to save others," Amy says. "This month the Lions along with (Lions defensive end) Ziggy Ansah organized a spa day for breast cancer patients and survivors. Five girls were under 30. That is alarming. And that is why my platform is early detection and body awareness. I don't care what age you are, what your family history is, whether or not your breasts are cystic - check for lumps! Don't know how? Google it. If I can save just one life because of my own experience with cancer, my life will be richer for it. In fact, my life is richer."
While cancer caused the Kocureks to pivot, the path they traveled cemented their commitment and rang true in their wedding vows.
"In my relationship with Kris, cancer made us stronger," Amy shares. "He loved me through everything. He took care of me through everything, with a mix of tenderness, support and good coaching. By the way, have you seen our Lions defense? They're awesome."
- Each year, approximately 70,000 men and women age 15 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer in the US.1 Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in this age group.2
- In 2015, the American Cancer Society projected 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer among U.S. women annually, as well as an estimated 60,290 additional cases of in situ breast cancer.3 It is estimated that 12,150 cases of breast cancer will be in women under age 40 and approximately 26,393 women will be under 45 years of age.7
- Nearly 80% of young women diagnosed with breast cancer find their breast abnormality themselves.4
For more information on early detection and self-exams go to: http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/testing/types/self_exam/bse_steps
Cynthia Zordich is the founder of nflthread.net and co-author of When The Clock Runs Out. She is the wife of Former NFL Safety /current UM DB Coach, Michael Zordich, and the mother of Former Fullback Michael Zordich (Carolina Panthers), Former D-1 QB Alex Zordich and Daughter Aidan Zordich (Assistant, Funny or Die).