The daughter of Paul and Kathy Gross, Marykate "Katie" Birch, 38, has been chosen as one of two honorary co-chairs by the Adams County Relay for Life Committee for the 2012 event, slated to start at 12 noon Saturday at Adams Central's football stadium.
Katie graduated from Bellmont High School and lives south of Decatur with her family: children Isaac, 18; Maverick, 16; and Gabrielle, 11; and her husband, Matt Birch.
Her journey with breast cancer began in 2011 when she started experiencing an itching sensation in her chest, which doctors told her is not a usual symptom, accompanied by a small lump. It was enough to prompt her to call the doctor.
After speaking with her doctor, a mammogram was ordered. Unfortunately, the location of the lump, near the center of her chest and very close to the bone, made it undetectable during the mammogram
Skip ahead to March, 2012, and Birch returned to the doctor for her annual checkup. After explaining that she was still experiencing itching, and that the lump had gotten a little bigger, the doctor determined an ultrasound was now needed. This time, they spotted the tumor.
With a strong family history of breast cancer — her mother and aunt, Rosie Ellsworth, are both survivors — Katie decided to have a biopsy. Doctors took five samples and all five came back positive for abnormal cells.
"At that point, I knew," said Katie. "Then I got the actual call while working at Evergreen. Boy that's horrible, that is not a fun call to get, but I think I was kind of expecting it."
Katie was diagnosed with stage 2B invasive ductal breast cancer. She also learned that the cancer had become entangled in her chest muscle, going down and behind the breast, away from where the actual lump was.
On May 1, 2012, Katie went in for a bilateral mastectomy, having both breasts removed, in an effort to thwart the cancer and reduce the risk of a possible relapse in years to come.
"The double mastectomy, the left side was prophylactic, that was my choice, because of the strong family history and other stories of people who had had one removed, then the cancer came back in the other one. So it was peace of mind for me, and my doctor agreed to it, so that's what I did," she explained.
Katie said what has helped her the most is the amazing amount of support she and her family have received from the community. Originally, her plan had been to go through her experience quietly. People who cared for her, however, had other ideas.
"Cody Walters; oh, that boy, what can you even say? He kind of opened it up and I still get teary-eyed when I think of what those boys did. There are so many generous people in this community. I had an idea, because I've lived here all my life, so I know a lot of really good people in this town. But you don't know how generous, just how special people are, until something like that happens to you. And I know that it's happened to a lot more people than just me. It's been pretty amazing."
After hearing of Katie's diagnosis, Cody, along with other Bellmont High School football teammates of Katie and Matt's son Isaac, decided to take action and started a campaign for Katie called Project Pink Vest. Cody developed a website in order to help raise money for the many expenses the family would incur during Katie's treatments. The boys even donned pink vests and ties for their prom.
Walters has said he initially set a goal of $100, but Project Pink Vest exploded throughout the community and has surpassed that amount by far, currently topping the $5,000 mark and still counting.
Katie went on to explain that it isn't just the football players and families who have given so much support. Members of her son Maverick's Bellmont basketball team and the hospital have brought the family so much food it has filled their deep freeze. "It will be a long time before I have to cook a meal and that is huge to me," said Katie.
She also spoke of how the Bellmont baseball players, knowing of her apprehension to losing her trademark long hair, shaved their heads in support.
"That was a big deal for those boys! Especially right before graduation pictures! I thought, 'Oh, no! Their parents are probably going to be so angry!' But they weren't. They were all just as proud of those boys as I was."
Katie will undergo six months of chemotherapy, having treatment every 21 days, followed by 35 radiation treatments which she will receive five days a week.
"You do what you've got to do. There's no other way for me to handle this than positive. I've had so much support," she said."I've had my bad days, sure. But I've definitely had more good. That's what you go on, you go on the positive."
This is Katie's first experience with Relay for Life and she wasn't sure about being a co-chair when she was initially approached.
"I have a really good outlook, and I just felt there were so many more people out there more deserving. But then I heard Lou (Koning) was going to be the other co-chair, that just sealed it for me! He is such an inspirational person and that made me think twice about how many people we can show that this is beatable. It doesn't have to take your life, or take over your life."
"I want to pay this forward. I want everyone to know if someone's going through this quietly, and would like not to, that's where I can come in. Anybody can contact me in any way. I've gone through it with so much support. I just can't imagine how anyone could go through this alone, and I want to be there in any way I can."
Katie's address is 10195 N 200 E, Decatur, or she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org , or by calling (260) 724-2783, "I would never turn anybody away. That's what I want people to know more than anything,," she said. "If anybody needs support from me, if they need questions answered or they don't want to go through it alone, or they just want to talk, they can call me, because I'll be the first one in line to help."