Undaunted: Case Goalie Anna Kennedy Wins Her Personal Shootout with Cancer
Most collegiate student-athletes have a lot on their plates. Balancing competitive athletics and rigorous academic schedules can be an overwhelming task, but most will never have to worry about finding the energy to perform after a tough round of chemotherapy.
This is the situation that has been presented to Case Western Reserve University goalkeeper Anna Kennedy, but the junior from Evanston, Illinois has dealt with cancer in the same grind-it-out fashion in which she takes on life. At the same time, she has inspired a team and beaten a life-threatening disease – all before her 21st birthday. But to her, the entire process has been pretty routine.
"I don't feel as if I'm accomplishing anything," said Kennedy, who has participated fully in practice and games while undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's Lymphoma. "This is just something that was put in front of me and it is something I have to get done."
Before she was diagnosed, Kennedy's summer started out fairly routine for someone majoring in civil engineering at Case Western Reserve. She was spending her "break" working two jobs and researching nanotechnology at Northwestern University (IL). Squeezing in her offseason conditioning regimen was also on the to-do list.
Early on in the summer, however, Kennedy noticed a lump on her throat and decided to get it examined by her pediatrician. After all, her pediatrician's office was in the same building where she was having her injured shoulder examined. Luckily, Kennedy's shoulder did not require surgery and the initial tests on the lump came back negative. With the lump still intact, doctors had to figure out what the problem was and decided to put Kennedy through a biopsy.
The next week, June 9 to be exact, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Kennedy remembers the day vividly as the same day her hometown Chicago Blackhawks won the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup. She also recalls how she found out and how she reacted."My dad offered to pick me up from work that day and it was pretty awkward," said Kennedy. "We got home and my mom was waiting for me on the porch and that's when my parents told me."
Kennedy immediately had two questions – the first being "What is Hodgkin's Lymphoma?" Without much to go on other than a Google search, her parents described it as a type of cancer affecting the lymph nodes.
Kennedy's second inquiry was concerning her potential to return to school and play soccer. And that was a matter she was determined to provide the answer for.
With two days remaining before her next doctor's appointment and still not really knowing what to expect, Kennedy says her concern was never fully with herself. It was more for those around her.
"Throughout the whole time, I felt the worst for my mom and for what she had to go through," said Kennedy. "I knew I had to handle this like I handle everything else and I wanted to get all of the facts before I told the team."
After meeting with her doctor, Kennedy became more knowledgeable about Hodgkin's Lymphoma and found out that it was 97% curable when treated. In her mind, she had no doubt that she would be able to undergo treatment and beat this life-threatening disease.
Now better informed, she broke the news to her teammates via e-mail in late June and, of course, clued them in with her typical humor. At one point in the message she jokingly alleged that her chemotherapy would give her super powers and asserted it would be no match for her ultra-thick hair. With confidence, she expressed her certainty in being able to beat the disease and asked her teammates to leave the pity on the bench.
The Spartan soccer team reacted with initial distress, but quickly adopted Kennedy's kick-this-cancer mentality.
"I was really scared when Anna first told me," said close friend and teammate Anna Selser. "But, that initial shock only lasted a minute. If you know Anna Kennedy, you know she can fight through anything and I knew she would be fine."
With the initial stun over, Kennedy then set out to achieve her goal of returning to Case in the fall to play her junior year of soccer.
"I was going to come back to school and play, period," said Kennedy. "In my mind, there was never a question about that."
Kennedy's doctors weren't as sure as she was that her body would hold up through chemotherapy to perform in such a tough physical activity. Undaunted, Kennedy went through another round of testing and a surgery to place a catheter in her chest before she could begin treatment.
"I wanted to get the chemo started right away and I was mainly focused on continuing to the next step," said Kennedy. "Throughout this whole process, I have constantly worked towards the next step."
Life went on pretty much the same for the remainder of the summer, as she continued to work two jobs and did her best to stay in playing shape.
"The big thing I couldn't do was weight-lifting, but I was able to keep up with spinning, yoga and running. I just really have to adjust to what my body needs." said Kennedy. "My one limitation is my endurance because of the chemo. There are days after chemo where I feel terrible and it really took me a while to get back to feeling like myself."
Kennedy knew her routine would be significantly altered based on the way she felt after chemotherapy, so she made an adjustment. To prevent missing her usual workouts during the day, Kennedy countered by conditioning before work at 6:00 a.m.
Fast forward to August and Kennedy had completed the beginning stages of her treatment and returned to Cleveland for preseason practice, but she certainly did not feel like the old Anna Kennedy.
"My first day back I took part in goalkeeper drills," said Kennedy. "At the end of practice, I felt like I was going to pass out."
Despite feeling the effects of her treatment and having to return to Evanston for a Petscan, Kennedy never once thought about taking time off from soccer.
"If I wasn't able to play soccer, I wouldn't have been able to come back to school," said Kennedy. "There were times where I was extremely frustrated with the chemo, but that just made me want to get back faster. Soccer pushed me through chemo."
After getting cleared to participate fully by her doctor, she opted to stay with chemotherapy instead of switching to radiation and she decided to continue her treatment next door to the Case campus at University Hospitals' Ireland Cancer Center.
At UH, Kennedy began her third cycle of chemotherapy, which required treatment every other week. She also continued to practice with the team, making it a point to not miss any of the training.
"I felt like I had to prove that I was okay to play and there were times where my teammates told me that my participating helped to push them," said Kennedy. "I had to think about my team and I couldn't imagine missing anything."
Selser, who shaved her head in support of Kennedy, admires the courage and will-power her friend has displayed.
"Cancer or not, she is the most motivating person on the field and that definitely has not changed," said Selser. "It's amazing how she has been able to put mind over body. It's been inspirational."
Another teammate, who did not know Kennedy prior to this season, shared Selser's sentiment.
"I don't think I would be able to be out there running around and keeping up like she has," said freshman and fellow goalie Kerry Martenis. "Anna is always pushing everyone to work harder and to not give up. Her approach has really made training fun."
As the season got underway and fall semester officially started, Kennedy had to push herself even harder to meet the academic demands of being a civil engineering major at Case Western Reserve.
"Playing soccer keeps me on a very structured time schedule and that has helped a great deal," said Kennedy. "It is really hard as a Case student-athlete because you typically utilize the weekends to catch up or get ahead with your studies. I know that if I have a chemo weekend coming up, I have to get my work done before."
Ably juggling the field of play with the classroom and the hospital clearly exhibits Kennedy's impressive work ethic to those that surround her on a daily basis. Another member of the Case community, men's soccer coach Dan Palmer, sums that aspect of her personality up succinctly by saying Kennedy, "competes at life."
Still, the most amazing part of Kennedy's journey has probably been her constantly composed attitude.
"Sure there have been times where I have thought, why me? But, this is just something that was placed in front of me and it was something that I had to do," said Kennedy. "I don't feel as if I'm accomplishing anything special, I'm just getting something done."
While Kennedy downplays what she has accomplished, she is quick to recognize the family and friends that have sustained her throughout the entire process.
"My support system has been amazing with my parents (Carol Hammerman and John Kennedy), my brothers (Brendan and Charlie), my family, my friends from home and Case, my teammates and my coaches," said Kennedy.
Kennedy's parents have traveled back-and-forth to be with her during treatment times and her brother, Brendan, was able to be transferred at work so he could be closer to her. She has had friends travel to visit her and some – like Selser – have even gone the extra mile and shaved their heads in an act of solidarity.
Her other family at Case, the Spartan soccer team, recently produced a "get-well" YouTube dance video as Kennedy entered her final weekend of treatment. It was an especially touching gesture to Kennedy, who points out how much her teammates and coaches have helped her get through the whole process.
"It's gotten to the point where I go to the hospital for chemo, and all the nurses say the 'soccer girl' is here because so many of my teammates show up," said Kennedy. "Coach (Tiffany Crooks) has been awesome throughout this whole process and she has done everything she can to get me back."
Even though Kennedy still wouldn't describe herself as feeling normal, she has excelled on the field for Case. Through seven games, she has posted a 5-1 record and allowed just two goals. Despite her progress, however, she also knows that she still has a difficult road ahead of her.
"It is still going to take a few months to get my blood count down and that will be difficult because I'm going to feel like I'm all done," said Kennedy. "My body still has to recover and that is going to be the hardest part."
Kennedy also has to continue to be scanned every few months to check for remission.
"I'm going to go with the stats at this point and they are on my side," noted Kennedy. "When treated, this cancer is 97% curable. If it does come back, we'll just do it again."
Kennedy may have finished her chemotherapy, but she is by no means done with her recovery or her mission. She now hopes her story can raise awareness and show others this is a beatable disease.
Fittingly enough, Kennedy's saga comes to a close as the Spartans lead up to their annual, "Kicks for a Cause," game, in which the Spartans donate the proceeds to a charity of their choice. The team certainly didn't have to deliberate too hard on a beneficiary this season and will host its event on Saturday, October 23 in support of the UH Ireland Cancer Center.
"It's hard to really describe what Anna's journey has meant to our Case soccer family," said Crooks. "Cancer has brought to light everything about Anna we've all known to be amazing - her bravery, her courage, her resolve, her humor. She's inspiring, and she doesn't mean to be. She's just being who she is."