By Josh Ellerbrock
Published in News on February 21, 2014 1:46 PM
Kasey Swartz laughs as she reveals a list she made for her daughter, which includes dating rules, during Thursday's Wayne County Relay for Life Kickoff Dinner at First Pentecostal Holiness Church in Goldsboro.
Honorary Youth Chairman Josh Weaver shares a hug with Kasey Swartz at the banquet. Mrs. Swartz is the honorary adult chairman of this year's Relay for Life.
When Kasey Swartz sat down to tell her story during Thursday night's Wayne County Relay for Life Kickoff Banquet, she brought a prop, something she called a "cancer perk."
Purple, sequined, and with three-inch heels, a glittery pair of pumps sat at the front of the stage. She couldn't wear them, nor walk in them -- she was too tired to even stand.
But their presence, like Kasey's, was a gift -- a symbol of another day won in what has been a long, hard battle.
Kasey was the featured speaker at last year's Survivors Banquet. But like many cancer survivors, her story couldn't end with a simple wrapup. After a tough "cold" last spring that left her breathless after climbing a flight of stairs, she set an appointment for a checkup.
A scan found a collapsed lung filled with more than two liters of cancerous fluid. Now, in Stage 4, the 26-year-old is preparing for whatever comes next with a smile and a strong belief in a higher power.
Kasey's story begins in the first days of 2012. At 24 years old, she was waiting for a new life to begin in North Carolina with her husband, Alec, and 1-year-old daughter, Cambria. But before she could cross the state line, a diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer left her breathless and numb.
"I thought 'is this really my life? What did I do so differently from everyone else?' And once I stopped hearing the voices, I asked if there was Wi-fi in the chemo bay. (The doctor) said there was, and it made me feel a lot better," she said.
But there was a battle ahead, and Kasey knew it.
"I was a young mom fighting to have the rest of my life," she said.
Kasey had a double mastectomy, scheduled treatment sessions and went forward empowered yet saddened by her new life. After eight rounds of chemotherapy, 38 rounds of radiation and losing her hair, she could claim to be cancer-free in January 2013.
But it wasn't to be. God had other plans.
"I couldn't shake this feeling that whenever I asked my God for the next step, He would say, 'You're not done.'
"A few times I would ask, 'Am I done?' and I would get back 'no.' I just didn't like that. I remember begging God, I don't want anymore. I just want to live. I made it through that. I made it forward. I felt I climbed this mountain only to be knocked down again."
Kasey called her preacher for guidance. He told her, "God made us to fight and to fight until the final round. It's not up to us."
Kasey has not given up fighting. Her outlook has changed because of it.
"I've learned things through all of this. Beating cancer is not having a clear scan. It's not allowing this disease to rule your life. It doesn't define who I am, and if I am happy or not. Beating cancer is having your eyes set on God, and nothing on earth is going to defeat you," she said.
"I've learned that fighting isn't just about giving cancer a roundhouse kick to the face, even though it's a pretty good visualization."
She summed up her experiences with three guidelines: 1. Just go. 2. Embrace the now and 3. Never give up on faith.
"I may never be free of this disease, but that doesn't mean my prayers will never be answered," she said.
Kasey is still fighting. She's currently taking experimental treatments with a cold laser at Duke University Medical Center, which has been beneficial. The tumor has started to regress.
In the meantime, she lives and prays so that someday she might be able to watch her daughter, now 3 years old, go to school for the first time. But she wants to make sure she says everything she needs to to her daughter.
So she is keeping a journal.
It is full of the day-to-day and mom stuff that any daughter would want to hear -- and a few other bits of advice she might not.
"I write what she does to me that day and why she made me so mad that day, and I actually made rules on dating, on how she's never going to do it," Kasey said with tears in her eyes.
But she knows that the same independent spirit and determination that keeps her going now is likely to appear later in her little girl.
"She's not going to listen to me anyway because she's my daughter."
Kasey will be leading the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base wives Relay team for a second year in a row. And she knows that Relay and its volunteers will be there when she needs them this month or the next.
"It's about knowing who you are and knowing you don't have to go through this alone because you never have to," she said.
When Kasey left the First Pentecostal Holiness Church last night, she kept her "cancer perks" in a bag. Roundhouses require stable footing.
"God will give me a perfect time here, and when I do I'll go with open arms and an excited heart," she said.
"I lose hope sometimes. I get sad sometimes, and I get mad. But I know I'm serving my purpose when God walks me to the end of the path. He'll call me home. I'll have no more scans, no more scars and no more pain."
Kasey will serve as the honorary adult chairman for this year's Relay.
She will share those duties with Honorary Youth Chairman Joshua Paul Weaver.
Joshua also spoke at Thursday's kickoff, telling the story of his fight with a brain tumor that should have left him hospitalized and in a coma.
At 14 years old, a simple eye appointment turned into a mad dash to Durham for a better scan of a ballooning tumor near his optic nerve that was putting pressure on his brain.
But he kept up his spirits, and "like a true Weaver," he said, kept a belief that God would make things work out.
"I put it in God's hands," he said.
And he made sure to stay lighthearted despite the nervousness he felt inside -- especially when it came to his hair, half of which had to go to allow his cancer treatment.
Joshua even looked at that as a positive.
"Those who saw me said I had cool hair," he said.
Since that cancer fight, Joshua has had good news.
After 30 radiation treatments, he proudly announced that he was tumor-free as of Jan. 8 -- a fact that those at Thursday's banquet applauded with more than a few hoots and hollers.
And after their speeches, both cancer warriors were greeted with hugs, kisses and more than a few prayers and well-wishes from fellow survivors, friends, family and all those gathered to kick off the 2014 fundraising effort.
After all, stories like Kasey and Joshua's, that is why they all "Relay."