She was used to the stares, but this felt different. As Amanda Kraus Wilson walked the Capital One Arena concourse during a game in the Eastern Conference finals in Washington, she was recognizable for two reasons: her red No. 20 Washington Capitals jersey with "AmandaStrong" on the back, and her bald head.
The latter had been a source of internal strife, the result of cancer treatments that caused her to lose her hair and become self-conscious. She would cover up in restaurants because, she'd tell her husband, "I feel disgusting, and they wouldn't want to eat looking at me." But now she was in an arena that served almost like a second home. Fans, even if they didn't know her, felt like they did: Over the previous couple of days, her story had been told on local TV and in The Washington Post.
When fans saw Wilson, they shouted encouragement, hugged her or gave her high-fives. They told Wilson they were rooting for her. But nothing meant more than what she didn't feel: pity.
It's one thing for her husband, Scott Wilson, to tell her, as he had, that "after she shaved it off, she was beautiful. It brings out her eyes." It's another to feel that way about yourself. She needed this victory.
"It was the first time in a long time I didn't feel people looking at me like, 'That poor girl, look at her,'" Wilson, 41, said, her voice cracking over the phone. "It was like, 'Oh, it's Amanda. We saw you on TV.' To have that feeling back ... for the first time, I felt proud and happy of who I was."
And who she is now depends on the time of day: She's a mom, a wife, a cancer patient and a Capitals die-hard. The last two, in particular, have grabbed hold of her lately. That's what makes the Capitals' Stanley Cup run so important. It has served as a distraction during a time when she and those close to her needed it most. The Caps' series with Las Vegas is tied at 1 as they await Game 3 in Washington on Saturday.
Wilson is engaged in a battle with a rare and life-threatening form of cancer called leiomyosarcoma of the inferior vena cava. There's no way to sugarcoat reality, and neither Wilson nor her husband attempt to do so. The ending could be uplifting; it could be depressing.
They won't know until her doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, perform surgery in early August. Regardless, she already knows that when they remove the tumor they must also take out her right kidney. There's a chance she might lose the use of her legs because the tumor is touching nerves.
She's in the midst of five weeks of radiation treatments, undergoing half-hour sessions Monday through Friday. For the next week or so, she'll have the Capitals to provide a daily distraction, whether with their games or from her reading stories or watching highlights.
"When you're diagnosed with cancer, from the minute it happens, so much of who you are is taken away instantly, and it continues to get worse," Wilson said. "You just lose a sense of who you are, and it becomes challenging to look in the mirror because you've lost your hair and you have tattoos on your body for radiation. It's one thing after another. And you think, 'I don't even recognize this person anymore.' With the Capitals, it's normalcy. This is what my family has always done."
Like planning dinner around the games. Or following superstitions. When a friend sent Wilson game-worn Evgeny Kuznetsov gloves, her husband happened to put them on during a playoff game. The Caps promptly scored. She made sure he kept wearing them in subsequent games.
"Just having these games coming every other day has helped us bide the time," Scott said. "That time would probably have been spent worrying about what the next day was going to bring or thinking too much about the future. It's given us moments of joy and the excitement."
After Washington beat Tampa in Game 7 of the conference finals, she did what most Caps fans did: Unleash the fury of emotion -- joyous tears for a family that needed every drop. Scott, who admits to at times crying at night "when no one can see me," shared in the positive emotions.
"I was crying. My husband was crying because I was crying," Wilson said. "We were so happy. That night we were thinking about the Caps. I was on the phone until 11:30 [Central time], still watching coverage. I just wanted to see more highlights. I was on Twitter looking at all the different feeds. The first thing in the morning when I woke up I said, 'Have they put up the Caps' celebrations yet?' I just wanted to see more."
Her best friend, Jenny Bradshaw DeFalco, said Scott texted her the morning after Game 7 to let her know how happy his wife was after the win.
"It was excitement he hadn't seen in her in months since she got this diagnosis," DeFalco said.
It helps DeFalco too. The friends, who met in seventh grade, have been together for many ups and downs, including the time when Wilson was 26 and in the hospital after being diagnosed with Crohn's disease. When DeFalco visited the hospital that time, with her young child, she recalled one thing: her friend's smile upon seeing them. DeFalco was Wilson's maid of honor, and Wilson's passionate sales pitch was one reason DeFalco's husband's company bought season tickets for the Capitals.
"When I don't think about [the Caps], I get really sad," DeFalco said. "Knowing how happy this is making her and especially the outpouring of love and support ... that's uplifting her spirits. Everybody's rooting for her and hoping she can beat this."
Doctors delivered the jarring news to the Wilsons on Feb. 21. After that came a whirlwind of research to find out more about what they were facing and where they should go next. Friends helped, too, with some contacting Dr. Thomas Bower, the head of vascular and endovascular surgery at the Mayo Clinic, via email. Bower already knew about Amanda Wilson before she even contacted him.
Scott Wilson likened Bower's status in the medical community to that of a Supreme Court justice. Still, just landing an appointment with him guaranteed nothing. The Wilsons left their home in Suffolk, Virginia, not knowing whether she'd receive the surgery. When Bower told Amanda Wilson the doctors would do the surgery but that it would cost her one kidney and possibly the use of her legs because of nerve damage, Wilson was able to gloss over the negative side effects.
"We knew my life depended on whether they would say yes or no," she said. "So all I heard in that first appointment was they said yes."
Her voice cracked at the memory. She didn't stop, though, and finished her thought. It sums up her attitude: A bad situation won't sidetrack her.
"I was very upset, but I said to my husband, 'I don't know how you get to the point in your life that someone says you'll lose your kidney and muscles and possibly the use of your legs but that's good news,'" she said. "That's where we are. It means they're trying to save my life. It was a good day."
The Wilsons abandoned the "why me" thinking a while back. Wilson, an athlete, cheerleader and homecoming queen in high school, opted for a positive approach. She has a 3-year-old son, Ian, and an 8-month-old daughter, Emery. She views her situation as a teachable lesson.
"I'm a physical therapist, so I've seen the things that can be done," she said. "I can still be a mom and still do all the things I want to do even if I can't have my leg. I have two kidneys, so I look at it that way.
"I'm trying to read people's inspirational stories and how it positively can affect your kids when they see a parent struggling with these things and triumph. They may grow to be a stronger person and maybe more independent because they have to help their mom versus Mom always helping them. I just have to be strong and show them that's OK."
One logistical challenge for the Wilsons is they didn't know how long they'd be in Minnesota during treatment. Initially they hoped for as little as two weeks, but the early rounds of chemo had not shrunk the tumor enough. That has meant uncertainty over how long they can rent a house. They're fortunate that Scott is a patent attorney and can work remotely. But they've now moved three times.
The Wilsons have had a small army of support. Amanda's mom, Marilyn Kraus, has been with them the entire time in Minnesota. She used her sick leave, and then her co-workers donated some of theirs. DeFalco helped with their initial move and has flown to Minnesota multiple times to visit, in addition to speaking on the phone with Wilson several times a week, texting daily -- about the Capitals -- and offering moral support. She's the one who, along with Scott, got the momentum started for Wilson's opportunity to attend Games 3 and 4 of the conference finals; it was before her radiation treatments began, and doctors cleared her trip.
Their siblings and other friends have also pitched in. Wilson's friend Mark Milsaps told her to embrace her baldness. Before her outing in Washington, he told her to adopt the team's catchphrase of "Rock the red!" to herself and "Rock the head!" It's all mattered.
When Amanda and Scott started dating, he was a Capitals fan but not a huge one. That changed, thanks to the many games they would attend together using her season tickets; her grandparents had also had season tickets in the Caps' infancy. Scott Wilson went from following a team to becoming a passionate fan, like his future wife.
Their wedding coincided with Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals vs. the New York Rangers on May 12, 2012. So after their wedding in Annapolis, Maryland, they sailed on a boat to a bar where there was a Caps viewing party. Wilson wore a Caps sweatshirt over her wedding dress. The Capitals lost. That was the theme every year before this one, which is why the Wilsons didn't hold out great hope when the playoffs began -- especially as the Capitals lost their first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But before Game 3, a package arrived that stemmed from the efforts of a friend from college whom she hadn't heard from in a while, Shannon Gharib. She bought the No. 20 jersey -- Amanda's high school soccer number -- that Wilson now always wears. Other friends got the jersey signed by, among others, Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby. Coincidentally -- or not -- the first night she wore it, Lars Eller, who wears No. 20, scored the game-winning goal in double overtime.
There have been other coincidences -- or not: She had a fever and needed to be in the hospital for three days. Doctors suggested staying one more night; that would have meant missing Game 7 vs. Tampa. But the doctor changed his mind. Also that day, her half-hour radiation session was scheduled to begin 15 minutes before game time. But there was an opening and they moved up her appointment. So she watched the game from home.
Eventually, a team of four doctors will help to determine her future. Until then, it's all about trying to ride an unexpected wave of emotion.
"Once the Caps are over, it's back to reality and back to depression, but yeah, that's what's made me so happy is how happy it's making her," DeFalco said. "It's been a huge distraction, an awesome distraction."
If one team gets hot, the end could occur on June 7, the night of Game 5. Regardless, the latest this distraction will last is June 13. Then it's daily treatments before a month off before the surgery. Her husband will do what he's always done for them at that point: Plan some outings, whether in Minnesota or, they hope, back in Virginia, or in the Outer Banks in North Carolina. But maybe the Caps' run will provide enough of an emotional bridge.
"I never would have thought, 'Let's look for some distraction to get through this thing,'" Scott said. "A lot of things become trivial when you're dealing with something to this magnitude that's life-threatening and you got young kids to take care of. You might think, 'My love for the Caps? Who cares about that?' But this has helped her more than I could ever imagine."
If nothing else, in the future, it'll alter her hairstyle. Gone, she said, will be the long hair she had always had.
"I will never waste another hour on my hair ever again," she said.
For now, she can go out in public without a wig or a cap. She can feel good about herself again, a minor triumph to go along with the 13 postseason wins the Capitals have provided.
"I'm not trying to hide myself anymore," she said. "This whole experience has really done that for me."