Know this, Kasey Mattison is strong.
It's not because she weathered four years of college soccer, from the intense games to the demanding practices to the rigorous travel and class schedules.
It's because Mattison is a cancer survivor. It's because for two months, Mattison, a student-athlete development coordinator for VCU, carried a black handbag everywhere she went - 24 hours a day, seven days a week - that housed her chemotherapy treatments. It's because at 26, she was faced with the fight of her life. It's because she never stopped thinking about the student-athletes whose education was her priority. It's because through it all, she stayed positive. That's strength.
In November of 2009, Kasey experienced chronic stomach pains and problems going to the bathroom. Her physician told her it was likely internal hemorrhoids, which would require surgery. Mattison was so confident in that diagnosis she went to her appointment with the surgeon alone. Things quickly took a turn for the worse.
"The surgeon examined me and said, 'Okay, did you bring anybody with you?' And that's when my heart just sank and I knew something was seriously wrong," Mattison said. "That's when it kind of flickered in my head that it could be cancer."
Mattison was diagnosed with stage two colon rectal cancer, an extremely rare disease for someone her age. Doctors said she likely had cancer for about five years, and the buildup began in college.
"It was definitely a shock and all of my doctors have said I am the youngest person they've seen with this type of cancer," Mattison said.
Some might call it bad luck, but Mattison never felt sorry for herself.
"I think myself, you always want to know why," said VCU Associate A.D. for Academic Support, Sofia Hiort-Wright, Mattison's boss and trusted confidante. "She's like, 'They say they can't tell me why so I'm just going to move on and I'm going to beat it and that's it.' It's pretty amazing."
Mattison needed radiation everyday for two months, and she received non-stop chemotherapy treatments for two months through a port installed in her chest. A tube ran from the port to a medicine packet in a small black case that she carried with her everywhere she went.
Once a week, doctors would remove the needle in the port, clean it, replace it with a new one, and give her a new battery pack. The batteries didn't last as long as expected and Mattison had to replace them herself. Despite those issues, her chemo was relatively low maintenance and was virtually undetectable to most of her co-workers.
"They all just thought I had a little purse I was carrying around," Mattison said. "No one could tell I had this big patch with a needle and a wire. I always put the tube going underneath my clothing just so it wouldn't get pulled out or anything."
Fatigue during treatment was common. Mattison also experienced extreme sensitivity to hot and cold. If she touched something cold with her hand, her fingers would go numb. If she drank a cold beverage, her throat would tingle and her airway would swell. She also experienced an occasional metal aftertaste.
Mattison had surgery in March of 2010 and was out of work the month before and after the operation. Another intense round of chemotherapy followed every other week for five months. One of the most difficult things for Mattison, however, was being away from work. She kept close contact with Hiort-Wright throughout.
"She's so committed to her work and her athletes and she wants them to grow and get their degrees," Hiort-Wright said. "She was like that the whole time, when she was out, when she had surgery, when she had treatments. She was sitting in bed and she would be so tired and she'd send me emails and I'd be like, 'Don't worry about anything at work.'"
Although the cancer was her own, Mattison was not alone in her fight. Her husband Justin, who she met while they were both undergrads at VCU, attended every doctor's appointment, and made sure Kasey was receiving proper care. If he couldn't be with her at the hospital, he'd make sure a member of her family was there in his place.
Following surgery, Mattison's doctor stressed the importance of regular walks. The morning after the operation she had 20 staples in her stomach. While physical activity seemed daunting, Justin made sure she got her exercise.
"I think just knowing that he was there and he was trying to support me and do whatever he could do to help me was the biggest thing for me," Kasey said.
Mattison has, almost literally, grown up at VCU. A native of Henrico, she played four year of soccer for the Rams from 2001-04. She earned a degree in psychology from VCU in 2005, as well as her master's in counseling education in 2008. She met Justin, who played baseball for the Rams, at VCU. In 2007, she joined the athletic department as an academic advisor.
That's why, following her surgery, people at VCU reacted the way they did. It was like family. Co-workers sent home dinners and cards through Hiort-Wright. Some coaches and student-athletes dropped by to visit. Hiort-Wright was inspired by the response.
"You hope that that's going to be the case, but you never know," Hiort-Wright said. "I think a lot of people say, 'We're a family.' But in those cases you realize it's actually true."
Mattison has considered herself cancer-free since March, when a colonoscopy revealed no evidence of the disease. Her cancer will officially be deemed "in remission" on March 1, 2012, two years after her surgery. She says her doctors are confident her cancer will not return, and if it does, it will be a different type.
She's been back to work for nearly a year and a half, and even though life is mostly back to normal, Mattison has been forever changed. Mattison realized she's stronger than she thought. There were days that felt nearly impossible, but she learned to persevere.
"I was impressed at what I was able to go through and not freak myself out or get depressed or kind of be that 'Why me?' attitude," Mattison said. "It was more in the back of my head, snapping myself back into that, you can do it because you can handle it. Get through it and just move on."
She's done just that.
- Written by VCU Athletic Communications Graduate Assistant Nan Turner