Living

Kathleen Swinney has the heart of a Tiger

Kathleen Swinney holds her sleeping son Clay, 5, as her husband Dabo Swinney is named Clemson's new football coach during a news conference with Athletics Director Terry Don Phillips Monday, Dec. 1, 2008, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.  (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
Kathleen Swinney holds her sleeping son Clay, 5, as her husband Dabo Swinney is named Clemson's new football coach during a news conference with Athletics Director Terry Don Phillips Monday, Dec. 1, 2008, at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

GREENVILLE - This past weekend, thousands of women ran - or walked - to support research to find a cure for breast cancer. Kathleen Swinney hopes the Susan G. Komen Upstate Race for the Cure held Saturday will soon be the last such event.

Swinney, wife of Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney, calls breast cancer an "epidemic," and it's a monster she has faced head on.

In 2003, her older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-30s (a cousin had already been battling the disease for a few years) and through the course of her treatment tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation, which creates a substantial risk of breast cancer for women who are carriers.

That news meant Swinney needed to get tested. She delayed getting the test for a year, she said, and then learned she, too, was positive.

"Even though it took me a year to get tested, it took me maybe a week to decide what I was (going to do). Well, not even a week; I knew when I left there," she said. "I told Dabo, 'I have to have a mastectomy.'"

And that's what the then-34-year-old mother of three did just a few short weeks later. In the fall of 2005, she underwent a five-hour combined mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. She missed the next weekend's away game but was back in the stands rooting for the Tigers within two weeks.

"I can't believe I'm saying this because there was pain involved, but it was a positive experience for me," she said.

The BRCA gene mutation, she said, made her lifetime risk of breast cancer about 89 percent. The double mastectomy reduced her chances to less than 1 percent.

"If somebody said it's almost a 90 percent chance of rain, you're probably going to take your umbrella," she said.

Now, four years later, Swinney looks back on her decision and reflects on the resolve and determination she felt: "I had no regrets. The peace of mind that it gave me was just amazing."

Swinney said that the word "mastectomy" scared her at first, but she gained a new perspective after helping her sister through her recovery. It's a message she hopes to pass on to other women.

"I do see women who are really scared, and I thought, 'That's exactly how I felt when my sister was going through it.'

"But seeing her go through it - then when I had to, I thought, 'It's OK; I can do this.' That's just what I hope to give to other women that I've talked to."

In her role as the first lady of Clemson football, Swinney has found herself thrust into the limelight, and she's brought her personal journey with her, ready - nearly eager - to share her story with other women in the hopes that it may bring serenity or comfort to even one.

She's also bringing her newfound resources to the fight against breast cancer.

"We felt like that God expects more out of us," she said, because of the public platform she and Dabo have gained since his elevation to head coach last year.

They formed the Dabo's All-In Team Foundation, naming breast cancer research as one of their four charity focuses.

"Because of research and money that people have given to breast-cancer research, I was able to have that knowledge, have that test," she said.

Continued support of research, she said, is crucial in reaching a cure so that her three sons, who have a 50 percent chance of carrying the gene, won't have to worry about their daughters facing breast cancer.

The Ladies Football Clinic, held in July, was a big step in raising funds for breast cancer research. Fifteen dollars of every registration fee - along with a matching donation from the foundation - was funneled directly to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and AnMed Health, for a total of more than $30,000.

"We're just getting started, so we hope it's thousands more than we've been able to do so far, but we were really pleased with $30,000 in one day for breast cancer," she said.

In recognition of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Swinney agreed to work with AnMed Health in the Upstate to encourage women to be screened for breast cancer. Mammos4Dabo enters women who get a mammogram during October or November in a drawing for dinner with the Swinneys.

Swinney laughed a bit at the name of the mammogram drive but said she's more than willing to give of her time if it means just one more woman will be screened because of it.

She's lent her name, voice and picture to public service announcements and breast-cancer awareness promotions around the Upstate, and she and Dabo donated items to the Race for the Cure auction.

"If we can help raise money to give to research or to another charity just by giving of our own time, then we feel like that's what we need to do," she said.

And her advice for any woman facing the possibility of a prophylactic mastectomy?

"Hands down, double mastectomy. I wouldn't even think twice," she said. "You are going to be totally fine."

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