On Sunday, Nationals fan Cathy Colleli will be honored as the team’s honorary bat girl.
The Olney, Md., native's journey to get there has been a long one filled with tears, fears and some relief from breast cancer found on the baseball diamond.
In 2002, Cathy’s sister, Sheri, was diagnosed with the deadliest and most aggressive form of breast cancer, called inflammatory breast cancer. Undetectable by most standard mammograms and tests, it grew quietly in her body for two years.
By the time she was diagnosed, it was too late. She was given just six months to live.
But Sheri, the youngest of five siblings and the baby of the family, bravely hung on for two years. Cathy became one of Sheri's caregivers, and as Sheri's condition worsened, the sisters spent their hours watching Nationals games together during her last months.
Sheri succumbed to the disease in 2004 at the age of 38. She left behind two daughters, ages 7 and 4.
Just five months after losing her sister, Cathy also lost her mother to cancer.
Knowing that breast cancer ran in the family, Cathy got mammograms every year on the week of her birthday, May 10. She tested negative for the breast cancer gene, but her doctor put her on medication as a preventative measure.
During the summer of 2009, Cathy attended a fundraiser for the Brem Foundation, which focuses on early diagnosis. After hearing her story, Dr. Brem encouraged her to get a baseline MRI. The $2,500 test was not something her insurance company was initially willing to cover, but Cathy was persistent.
After many letters and phone calls, she was able to get the test covered by insurance and went in for her MRI in August 2009.
Two weeks later -- just three months after her latest clean mammogram -- Cathy was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Called triple negative breast cancer, it would have grown into the same type of aggressive disease that took the life of her sister. Had it not been diagnosed by MRI, it would not have been found by doctors for another two years, at which point it would have been too late for treatment to be effective.
“When I first told my family about my diagnosis, it was the hardest day of my entire life because their first question was if I was going to die,” Cathy explained.
“That was their only question. Was I going to die?”
Cathy couldn’t tell them no.
She started an aggressive path of treatment, had a double mastectomy and started a full round of chemotherapy. She was given her first clean bill of health in December of 2010.
This week Cathy went for her annual mammogram, one that had special meaning for her. Had she not taken the advice of Dr. Brem and gotten the baseline MRI, she would have been diagnosed this week with inflammatory breast cancer and been given the same six months to live as Sheri did nine years ago.
“If I had not pushed for it and gotten this test,” she said “I would be getting a much different diagnosis this month.”
It’s a small victory for Cathy because she knows that her family will likely have to face the disease again. But Sheri’s diagnosis and death brought a new level of awareness about inflammatory breast cancer, one that Cathy is determined to keep raising.
“My sister didn’t live long enough,” she said. “She did everything right. It’s just the type of breast cancer you don’t find. I have nine nieces, and it’s very scary to know that they’ll likely go through this one day. And if they do, I want to know that there’s stuff out there that will help them survive.”
After hearing about it from a friend, Cathy entered the Honorary Bat Girl contest held by Major League Baseball. The prize was the honor of being a bat girl for the Nationals this coming Sunday.
“After I entered the contest, I went on the website and read a large number of the other testimonials,” Cathy explained. “It was three hours of straight sobbing. I didn’t think I had a chance.”
Then, a stunned Cathy got the call that she had been picked.
Having grown up in a sports loving family, the prize is something they can all be excited about.
“We were Senators fans and then Nationals fans,” she said. “My brother even played against Jim Riggleman in high school.”
When asked what she is most looking forward to on Sunday, for the first time during our conversation, Cathy got quiet.
“This is going to represent my sister,” she said as she choked up. “She would have loved this. She would absolutely have loved this. And to know that our family is going to be there, and we’re all going to be there for her. That’s what I’m most looking forward to.”
Cathy works tirelessly to help raise awareness and encourage women to be vigilant about their own testing. Here are a few sites she recommends for those who want to get more educated and involved.
The Brem Foundation
Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation