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Survivor Spotlight featuring Cathy Colleli

10.15.2013 / Blog Posts Breast Cancer Awareness Community WOW Interview Series

During the month of October --  in conjunction with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” initiative -- we are delighted to introduce a blog series spotlighting breast cancer survivors on WOWRedskins.com. This Breast Cancer Survivor Spotlight Series will share the inspiring stories of these extraordinary women and special WOW members with the Redskins community while continuing to raise breast cancer awareness and educate women about the importance of annual screenings.

Our next special WOW survivor spotlight features native Washingtonian Cathy Colleli, 58, a retired federal audit/analyst manager and mother of two whose favorite Redskins players are Darrell Green and Chris Cooley. Five years after losing her sister, Sheri, to breast cancer in 2004, Colleli was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in August 2009 and received her clean bill of health in December 2010. After 38 years as a federal employee and following her battle with breast cancer, Colleli started a new chapter as a full-time nanny for her great-niece, Lily, who is now three years old.

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Courtesy of Cathy Colleli

How long have you been a Redskins fan?
Cathy Colleli: As a native of D.C., there has never been a time that my immediate and extended family didn't live and breathe Redskins. Every Sunday as a child, we gathered around the TV at either our house or one of many aunts’ and uncles’ homes in and around the D.C. area. My father had season tickets for years. My brothers continued with season tickets after that and they would occasionally let me go to a game. For the last few years, my sister, her husband, and I took over the tickets. We each have two seats. Now we occasionally "let" my brothers go with us!

What is your favorite Redskins memory?
Cathy Colleli: I have a lot of them but I have to say probably my favorite is more recent than older. In 2008, my brothers, sister, and I all traveled to Canton with other family members to witness Darrell Green and Art Monk be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was just the memory of a lifetime.

What is your game day ritual or superstition?
Cathy Colleli: You have to wear Redskins colors on a day they’re playing. I am a firm believer that if they’re not wearing the burgundy and gold and the team isn’t winning, somebody has to go put burgundy and gold on. If I walk into the house and somebody’s not wearing it and we’re losing, I’ll say, “It’s because you’re not wearing something! Go get it!”

Who was your support system and how did they support you?
Cathy Colleli: I have the most amazing family and my main support was my two grown sons. One of them moved back home to help; one was already here. So they took daily care of me and my sister took some time off work. They never left me alone. I have a very very big family and we had just gone through this five years before and I took on quite a bit of work when my sister was in treatment and my mother was diagnosed with cancer a year later so we had them in treatment at the same time. So between my other sister, my two brothers and myself and my sister in law we all rotated coverage and they pretty much did the same thing with me.

At first, my brother insisted I move into their house after surgery and I didn’t want to do that and I said I’d stay for the first few days. But it turns out having a double mastectomy was a lot more difficult than I anticipated and I ended up living in their house for about five weeks. Someone was home with me every single day, somebody took off work and the rest of them came in every day from work. I was never allowed to go to a doctor’s appointment by myself from all the consultations through the surgery through the treatment even when I said I was up to it they refused. I was never without somebody here.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew before your treatment?
Cathy Colleli: I’m in a different situation because I’d gone through this with my sister and we had the same oncologist. He actually said to me on the day I came in, “I’m going to tell you a lot more of what I’m going to do up front because I know you’re going to understand this because you’ve been through this.” I would advise anybody who starts the process, you cannot go to the doctor’s alone because you’re almost in a state of shock and you only hear half of what they’re telling you and I knew that from my sister because I went with her to her first appointment with the oncologist. I had someone come with me with a notebook and a pen taking notes. It’s ok to ask anything and everything you want to and not feel like you’re supposed to know something already.

What do you want women who are reading this to learn from your experience?
Cathy Colleli: I think people assume that breast cancer is breast cancer. It’s not. There are many different types of breast cancer and some of them like the kind I had and the kind my sister had are extremely aggressive types of breast cancer. My main thing I like to share with people is I’m here today by a fluke. Breast cancer’s in my family. My grandmother, two aunts, a cousin, my sister and me. So I’ve been fully aware and conscientious about mammograms since I was in my 30’s and we did everything right. I tested for the BRCA gene (I’m negative for the gene), my type of breast cancer and my sister’s type of breast cancer don’t have tumors. Hers wasn’t detectable until it was Stage 4 and it’s basically too late. I had a negative mammogram in May and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August.

It’s scary to me to think there are women out there who don’t know there’s something more they can do and they don’t know there are some types of breast cancer that don’t have tumors -- you won’t feel anything -- and that’s some of the awareness I really wish they’d start to spread.

I’m starting to hear more of it but even with everything I knew about breast cancer from my sister, I had never heard of what I had. I had never heard of triple negative breast cancer. There’s still so much we don’t know. They’ve made great strides and great progress but there’s still so much women don’t know.

How did you end up discovering your cancer after a negative mammogram?
Cathy Colleli: I’d been to a fundraiser in April and met with a doctor who advised that if you have dense breast tissue that you can’t only rely on mammograms that you need to have a baseline MRI. Even though I got a negative mammogram in May, I asked my gynecologist for an MRI. And they said no but I fought for it based on my family history and on having been told I had dense breasts in the past. They finally approved me to go get it and even the day I went to get it they asked me where was the tumor and I said, “No tumor, I’m coming for a baseline” and the radiologist said, “No, we don’t do that” and I said, “Well, you’re doing that today.” I did not go in there expecting anything whatsoever and when they called to tell me I needed to come back I still thought that was a fluke.

If I had not fought for the test, they told me it would have been at least two to three years before it would have shown up and it would have been stage four and I’d be in the same situation as my sister. I honestly have to say to you I felt like there was an angel watching over me that made me push for the test even having gotten a negative mammogram and that’s the only reason I’m here today. People don’t know there’s more out there they can do beyond a mammogram so whenever I have the chance to tell somebody if you’ve ever not been satisfied with what you’ve been told or you’ve ever been told you have cystic, fibrous breast tissue, you need to pursue and fight for it. The doctor who said, “I don’t know why we’re doing this” called me with my diagnosis and the first words out of her mouth were, “Thank god you pushed us because this is really bad. This is serious.”

What have you learned about yourself from your experience?
Cathy Collelli: That I was tougher than I thought. They call me Pollyanna because everybody says I have a positive attitude about everything. There were times I got pretty down, but I never thought that it wouldn’t be a good outcome. Even when things were really bad -- and things got really bad at times over the first two years -- I think I learned I was stronger than even I thought I was. Everybody told me how strong I was because we’d been through so much adversity already and I knew that I could persevere when times are tough -- I’m a single mom and I knew I could do that -- but I didn’t realize that I’d be the one that would be the cheerleader when they were down and so even when I wasn’t feeling good I didn’t realize I would have the strength to keep everybody else up.

How did the Redskins and the fan community impact your journey?
Cathy Colleli: We had huge viewing parties here because I was in treatment throughout the entire season that year [2010] and I wasn’t able to go to any of the games. Since then my sister and my brothers and I have gone to the pink ribbon games each year. It’s interesting because the woman and her husband who sit directly in front of us for season tickets she’s a survivor before I started going on the season tickets, she would talk with my sister and my sister would tell her, “My sister’s going through it right now.”

I’ll never forget the first game I was able to go the next year and she and I just hugged and cried. The woman that I really don’t know except from the games. And each year on the first game and it happened again for the Eagles game on Monday night, we look for each other in the stands and we hold onto each other for dear life because it meant we made it another year.

Amanda Rykoff is a New York City-based sports writer. She’s a proud Penn alum, recovering attorney, devoted aunt, and voracious consumer of media. She has contributed to espnW.com, The Outside Corner, ONE World Sports, Sports On Earth, The Football Girl and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter (@amandarykoff).

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