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Then and now, Kay Yow still inspires

We chatted as strangers tend to do when sitting near one another at sporting events.

I can't recall specifics, aside from the distinctive Southern accent, but the conversation was basketball. What would you expect from Kay Yow?

It was 1989 at the Women's Final Four in Tacoma, Washington. The legendary NC State women's basketball coach and her Wolfpack were a No. 2 seed that season, but were upset in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Yow and her friends were seated in the row behind my group of friends during the national semifinals.

I was a sports editor at my hometown newspaper in Michigan, but I wasn't working the event. I had planned my vacation around the Women's Final Four and took the opportunity to visit with friends in Seattle. (Of course, "vacation" meant working the phones from the great Northwest when Michigan's men's team shocked the world and won the NCAA tournament at the Kingdome in Seattle.)

The conversations with Yow lasted only as long as the two games, and were hardly intimate. But the memory of meeting Yow that afternoon is something I've always cherished. Especially now.

My second encounter with Yow, who died in 2009 after a decades-long battle with breast cancer, is much more personal. It came last month, six years after her death. It was just days after my own diagnosis of breast cancer, when a package from the Kay Yow Cancer Fund arrived at my door -- a benefit of having colleagues who truly care and have incredible contacts.

The box contained some merchandise with the Kay Yow Cancer Fund logo, including a T-shirt with the organization's "United We Fight" slogan emblazoned across the front, and a lovely hand-written note from an executive.

Since my diagnosis, the phone calls and emails of support had come pouring in, from loved ones you'd expect to provide a shoulder but also from colleagues whom I've never met in person. Gifts of food -- most packed with protein, which is very important for patients whose treatment plan includes chemotherapy -- were delivered.

But it was the package from the Kay Yow Cancer Fund that really blew me away and brought me to tears. I was touched beyond belief. No one was aware that I had met Yow all those years ago, and no one realized how much that chance encounter meant to me.

I followed Yow's very public and courageous battle with breast cancer, from the time she was diagnosed in 1987 to remission and then its recurrence that ultimately took her life. She faced breast cancer head on and brought awareness to it. She missed games at NC State as she underwent treatment, but her resolve always brought her back to the sidelines.

We all watched Kay Yow's triumphant return to basketball when the disease returned in 2004 and 2007. Yes, she appeared a bit frail and her hair was mostly gone, something I know lies ahead for me, too, when I undergo chemotherapy. But what remained was her unforgettable, famous ear-to-ear smile and her fighting spirit. She was determined to not let cancer define her.

I cried when I heard news of Yow's death in 2009, 20 years after I had the pleasure of speaking with her. She had fought so hard and brought breast cancer into our living rooms and everyday conversations. Cancer was no longer the "C" word people whispered. It became a disease worth shouting -- and educating people -- about.

Kay Yow lives on. Her impact on women with cancer is immeasurable. The annual Play4Kay women's basketball games Sunday and Monday once again put the spotlight squarely on the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Her foundation to date has supported $3.93 million in women's cancer research and programs focused on women's cancers. And just like Yow, it'll tirelessly keep up the fight.

My fight began after I discovered a lump in the shower while doing a routine monthly breast exam. While my breast cancer is the most common -- invasive ductal carcinoma -- it was found to be HER2-positive, a more aggressive form found in about 20 percent of breast cancer patients. A lumpectomy on Jan. 29 removed my small tumor. Next week, I begin a five-month regimen of chemotherapy, followed by radiation and a weekly dose of Herceptin, a relatively new drug targeted specifically toward HER2-positive breast cancer, for the next year.

Because of brave women like Kay Yow, I am prepared for my own battle. I will lose my hair. I will not wear a wig. I won't mind the strangers' stares at the grocery store or the dentist's office, because it will help bring awareness. I will use the opportunity as a platform to help educate women about the importance of monthly breast self-exams and annual mammograms. Already, my diagnosis caused a couple of friends to get their first mammograms. I count that as a victory.

Kay Yow continues to inspire me. While she eventually lost her battle with breast cancer, I know the research her foundation helped fund will help me win my own fight. In less than a decade since her death, research has advanced to the point that treatments are available for specific types of cancer, and the chances of recurrence are dwindling.

I am determined as ever to kick cancer's ass and I have many people in my corner. And, like Kay Yow, I am determined to help make a difference.

Mary Ullmer is an associate editor for espnW. Her 30-year sports journalism career has also included positions with the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press, Chicago Tribune, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Muskegon (Mich.) Chronicle.