Through her own ordeal, her sister’s fight with breast cancer, Kathleen Swinney wants everyone to know Saturday’s FSU game means more than just who wins or loses
By Will Vandervort
It’s five o’clock in the evening and after driving a little more than four hours to a Birmingham, Ala., hospital, Kathleen Swinney does not even take a break to stretch her legs. She gets out of her car and immediately heads toward the cancer wing.
Though tired and a little bit hungry, too, Swinney does not complain because she knows her four-hour drive from Clemson is trivial compared to what her sister, Lisa Lamb, is going through on a daily basis. As she opens the door and sees her older sister, a smile comes to her face. It is the same smile Lamb has when she sees her younger sister walk through the door.
“When she sees Kathleen, it just lights up her world,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “It means everything to Lisa. Kathleen lifts her up. She has gone through so much so Kathleen likes to go up there as often as she can to see her and let her know how much she loves her and that we all love her and are praying for her.”
The Swinneys will be thinking and praying for their sister and the millions of other women and families who are currently fighting or have survived breast cancer this Saturday when third-ranked Clemson host its Annual Breast Cancer Awareness Game against No. 5 Florida State in Death Valley.
Clemson players and coaches will wear pink accessories in the game to bring attention to Breast Cancer Awareness as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Three weeks ago, the Clemson Athletic Department and Swinney’s All-in Team Foundation, along with Coca-Cola Consolidated, OOBE and St. Francis Hospital unveiled the 2013 Breast Cancer Awareness Tiger Paw Pin, which has been available for sale all month.
Coaches and players have been wearing their Tiger Paw Pins, which is pink by the way, for the last month during Tiger Walk, games and any other official Clemson event.
“I just think it is awesome,” Kathleen said. “A lot of schools have breast cancer awareness games so we were just thrilled when it was finally agreed that Florida State was going to be our Breast Cancer Awareness Game and our foundation could sell pins and the money raised through those pins and through our ladies clinic as well that this could, one, raise awareness and, two, can raise money for research and other things.”
That research and things like equipment means a lot to the Swinney and the Lamb families. For the last two months Lamb, 48 years old, has been in the hospital fighting cancer in both her brain and in her lungs, which developed through her bout with breast cancer more than 10 years ago. She had been in remission for eight years thanks to a double mastectomy, but she was taken off her oral medications and that caused the breast cancer cells that were dormant in her body to spread to her lungs and her brain, which she discovered last year.
“The medicine kept her cancer free for eight years,” Kathleen said. “The doctors at Duke felt like she never should have gone off her oral medication. If just saying that can help one woman question her doctor and get more research and information that can go a long way.
“Lisa was doing very well and now that it has returned it has been extremely difficult. I don’t want to say anything that isn’t real positive because we always have hope and faith in God but it has been very difficult. It is never a good thing when your cancer returns.”
Kathleen says her older sister is her hero because of all she has endured and has never once complained. Also, her motivation to know and research all she can about her breast cancer saved Kathleen’s and their younger sister’s, Ann, life.
Lisa ultimately had a double mastectomy and went through an intense chemotherapy treatment which included the loss of her hair. Then the following year through more research she, and her cousin, Michelle Hansen—who also had breast cancer—discovered they had the breast cancer gene mutation and immediately Lisa called Kathleen.
“She told me she was a carrier of this and that’s why she got breast cancer so young,” Kathleen said. “She told me that her doctor recommended that our younger sister and I both get tested because we each had a fifty percent chance of having it.”
As it turned out, they both had it.
At first they did not immediately get tested, Kathleen said got caught up in life and kept putting the test off. Life was just happening and it was not on the top of her mind.
“I just kept thinking, ‘Oh I will get around to that soon,’” she said. “Clay was a baby. I had three baby boys in the house. It was just crazy. Eventually, two years later I got tested.”
That was in 2005 and at age 34 she tested positive for the mutation gene that causes breast cancer which meant she had an 89 percent chance to develop breast cancer.
“That was a pretty sobering statistic,” Kathleen said. “I’m a pretty positive person, but if somebody tells you there is a ninety percent chance of rain you are probably going to take an umbrella. That’s the way Dabo and I looked at it.”
So after careful talk and prayer, Kathleen and Dabo both agreed a double mastectomy was the best option for her.
“As I was listening to my doctor, I knew what I needed to do. I’m not a negative person, but I knew there was a great chance I was going to get breast cancer,” Kathleen said.
Kathleen ended up going to six doctors before she finally made her decision.
“It was a difficult situation,” Dabo said. “We came off vacation that summer and we did not really know what we were getting into. ‘This isn’t a big deal.’ But the next thing we know we are with the genetic guy and they told her she did have the gene.
“It was kind of matter of fact and you are like, ‘What does that mean?’ Then you start laying out what that meant and we did not like the answers to any of them. It really wasn’t good and her sister was battling with her first bout of cancer at the time. So we prayed about and we did a lot of research. I know what I wanted to do about it, but that was ultimately going to have to be her decision and I was going to support her in whatever she wanted to do.”
So the week before the Tigers went to Raleigh, N.C. and won their first Thursday Night ESPN game, Kathleen had her double mastectomy. Then head coach Tommy Bowden gave Dabo a couple of days off to be with her and to help take care of their sons.
“She was a trooper. She did a great job,” Dabo said. “It was like an eight month process for her to get through that deal. She did great and since then we feel like we were richly blessed with knowledge that sprung from research and that’s why it has become one of our passions to help create awareness and help make a difference.
“Hopefully, it has help save Kath’s life and hopefully there is a cure one day.”
The Swinneys’ knowledge when it comes to breast cancer has even trickled down to their players. Their influence has played a big role in defensive end Corey Crawford’s life. The junior lost his mother to the disease 18 months ago and the Swinneys have done everything they can to help him.
“She was so happy that he was here at Clemson,” Kathleen said. “She seemed really peaceful the last time I saw her because she knew he was at this great school with great coaches and had his college paid for. That’s what it is all about.”
To honor his mother, Dabo named Crawford as a captain for the Tigers in Saturday’s game.
“He has been a captain before and he deserves to be a captain, but we felt with this game being our Breast Cancer Awareness Game, Corey needs to be out there,” Dabo said. “His mother was a great woman and she loved her son. She was very proud of him.
“She was a fighter. She fought long enough to see her son play at Clemson and to see he was going to be okay.”
Kathleen hopes her sister is going to be okay. There is not a day that doesn’t go by that Lisa isn’t on her mind. She has her sister to thank for her own life and so if driving four hours one way to see her and to be by her side is what she has to do, then she is going to do it as many times as she can.
“I was ignorant. I wasn’t informed and because of what she has gone through, it not only motivated me to get myself tested, but to also inform others,” Kathleen said. “Watching her and all that she has gone through; to see her make it through, to see her walking around and seeing she is okay, that helped me from being fearful and that helped my little sister, too.
“Was it a vacation or easy? No, it is painful and difficult. But I was not fearful at all. We drew strength in watching her.”
That strength has given Kathleen and Ann a less than one percent chance of developing breast cancer now. Kathleen hopes that the Tiger Paw Pins they put out this month, plus the pink ribbons on Frank Howard Field and the pink accessories that the players will wear will at least influence one woman to go get checked out.
“Even one woman of the 84,000 people that are here at this game thinks, ‘I better schedule that mammogram.’ If that awareness, and with Corey being out there to honor his mother, if that gets one woman to do that then it was all worth it.”