Breast cancer fight close to Swinney's heart

The text messages are still on his phone, because Dabo Swinney cannot bear to delete them.

They are just another way to keep Lisa Lamb close. Six months have passed since his sister-in-law died, leaving a hole in the Swinney family that can never be filled. Sometimes, Swinney just looks at her texts for a good chuckle.

Like the one she sent while she was still in the hospital battling cancer. She wrote: "I cannot believe you're allowing your wife to dress our father this way" and attached a picture of him wearing crazy pants.

"That was just her personality," Swinney recalled with a laugh. "She would say anything, but she could get away with it."

Lamb is never far from his thoughts, or those of his wife, Kathleen -- one of Lamb's younger sisters. Most especially in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Lisa Lamb fought breast cancer and won in 2003. But nine years later, the cancer returned -- this time in her brain and lungs.

She spent two years in and out of hospitals before she died in April, two days after Easter. She was 49.

But in illness, and in death, Lamb gave life. Sometimes, that is hard for Kathleen to accept, because tragedy rarely leads to hope. How can death provide a gift? How can Kathleen be happy for herself, knowing her parents lost their first-born child, her nephews lost their mom, her brother-in-law lost his wife?

The grief comes in waves. The guilt does, too. But the gratefulness is permanent, because Kathleen knows better than anyone that Lamb died knowing she had potentially saved her sisters from the same hideous disease she could no longer fight.

When Lamb was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, and the treatments worked. She was cancer free and happy, but she soon learned she carried a mutated gene linked with breast cancer.

The genes are hereditary; Carriers have a much higher rate of developing breast cancer than the general population.

Lamb urged Kathleen and their youngest sister, Ann, to get tested. One of their cousins was fighting breast cancer at the time, and she also had the gene. Kathleen hesitated initially. She had three young boys and felt fine.

So she waited -- until she realized she could not wait any longer.

"Seeing what my sister went through, it would almost insult her if I didn't do something about it," Kathleen Swinney said. "She never said any of this, but it was almost like, 'You can have this knowledge. I wish I would have had this knowledge.'"

Finally, in 2005, Kathleen went to see a genetic counselor. She had her blood drawn and was called in a month later to hear the results.

She was a carrier.

"It was a surreal moment when we sat down with the doctor and he said, 'Look, here's the deal,'" Dabo Swinney said. "'You carry the gene, and there's a 90 percent chance you're going to get breast cancer. It's just a matter of when.'"

They listened, in shock, as the doctor laid out her options. Kathleen could be more vigilant with mammograms and screenings. Or she could take a drug that would potentially decrease her risk. Or she could get a double mastectomy, which would reduce her chances of getting breast cancer to about 1 percent.

"By the time I left the office, I got in the car and told Dabo, 'I need to have a double mastectomy," Kathleen said. "I didn't even waver. I was 34 at the time, but I felt my heart racing -- Lisa got this at 38, I don't have much longer, it's going to come, it's going to come."

Three months later -- in the middle of football season -- Kathleen had the surgery. Her sister, Ann, also was a carrier and had the same procedure. At age 40, Kathleen also had a hysterectomy to cut down her chances of developing ovarian cancer.

All seemed well with Lamb, but in 2011, everything changed. Lamb's doctors decided to take her off her cancer medication because she was doing so well. One year later, Lamb started to feel funny. She was tired, developed a cough and had trouble walking.

She went for another round of tests. Doctors found the cancer had returned. Lamb underwent successful brain surgery. But with the cancer in her lungs, there was not much the doctors could do.

Despite their positivity, the family knew they would eventually lose Lamb. So they tried to make the most of the time they had together. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2013, they all took a beach vacation. She got to be home for Thanksgiving, to celebrate the birth of Ann's first child. She got to be home for Christmas, too.

But in January 2014, Lamb was hospitalized for good. Kathleen drove from Clemson to Birmingham, Alabama, as much as possible. So did Dabo. Their final visit was on Easter Sunday. Dabo Swinney knew that was the last time he would see Lamb alive.

"I told Kath when we left, I think it was the first time I had seen her peaceful -- like she wasn't fighting," Dabo Swinney said.

Kathleen Swinney is alive because of her sister, and because of breast cancer research -- a cause the Swinneys have championed through their All In Team Foundation. They have raised between $250,000-$300,000 for breast cancer causes alone.

Clemson designated the Louisville game last Saturday as its breast cancer awareness game. Kathleen's family attended, including her brother-in-law, nephews and parents. There were hugs and tears. But mostly, there was love.

"Time will help heal the pain a little bit, but Lisa fought so hard," Kathleen said. "It's a gut-wrenching, horrific disease and just to watch somebody slowly die ... it's just really, really awful. It makes you definitely appreciate every day. You feel so blessed for every one moment."