High school softball: 18-year-old softball coach Jade Kennedy faces cancer with courage
18-year-old from P.G., others benefit from softball tournament
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Online photo gallery: Swing for Life Tournament
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Jade Kennedy watched family members struggle with cancer and wondered how they mustered the strength.
And then, at just 18 years old, she faced her own cancer diagnosis and discovered the resilience that was in them, also belonged to her.
A little more than a year after losing her aunt, Angela Kirk, to breast cancer, Kennedy was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Incredibly, she never once found herself wondering why or feeling sorry for herself.
"I think I just watched so many of my family members deal with (cancer) and I saw how strong everyone else was, and I knew I had to be strong," said Kennedy, who sat in the sunshine Saturday taking stats for the softball team that wore her number (20) on pink jerseys as a show of support.
Kennedy now works as an assistant coach for her alma mater, and until she was diagnosed three weeks ago, she attended UVU. The Pleasant Grove Vikings entered the Swing For Life Tournament last year for the first time, after Kennedy asked her teammates to help her honor her beloved aunt, whose initials were embroidered on her glove. It was an effort that helped the teenager cope with a devastating loss.
This year, those same teammates honored their newest coach by wearing her number and raising more than $3,000 for the nonprofit charity, which donates all funds to the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
Kennedy said she was surprised and overwhelmed to learn the team would wear her number on pink jerseys and dedicate their fundraising effort to her. She said returning to the team as a coach has helped her hold onto something she's loved for a long time.
"I have great support," she said, choking back emotion. "I wouldn't be able to do it without my softball family."
Jade's cancer was discovered when she went to the doctors in hopes of finding out why she'd had back pain for nearly a year. An MRI revealed about 20 nodules on her thyroid, so many, in fact, that doctors opted to remove the thyroid rather than biopsy it.
"At first, I didn't really think it was going to be a big deal," said Jade, who had to withdraw from school to deal with the treatment.
But with three of her aunts and uncles diagnosed with cancer in the last few years, her family was distraught. Her father, a long-time assistant for the Vikings softball team, said he found himself floundering more with Jade's diagnosis.
"I shut down a little bit, wanted to be alone," said Tim Kennedy.
He said Jade told him that once doctors explained what they found, she didn't need to wait for the results of the tests done on the thyroid.
"She said, 'I knew I had cancer,'" said Tim Kennedy. "It was disheartening to me, wondering how she must feel, but she was prepared for it, I guess."
The family received good news when doctors told her they felt they'd removed all of the cancer when they removed the thyroid. It was officially labeled stage one and Tim Kennedy said the family decided not to seek radiation iodine treatments because the "risks weren't worth the side effects."
"Now she's cancer free," he said, flashing a slight smile at his daughter.
Despite the positive outcome, Jade said she still has trouble talking about the cancer.
"It was hard to say that I have cancer," she said, the tears welling in her eyes again. "It just doesn't seem real. It's hard to stand here and say that."
When asked about her strength, her fortitude, and what it must feel like to be the recipient of an effort she spearheaded just a year ago, she looks up toward the blue sky and hesitates just a moment before answering.
"It's kind of weird," she said. "But that's how I stood out there today (as part of a ceremony to honor cancer survivors). (Aunt Angela Kirk) was with me. I just can feel her with me. I know she's telling me that what we're doing is for a good cause."
This year 24 teams participated in the Swing For Life Tournament and not including this year's fundraising effort, the charity has raised more than $862,000 for cancer research. The top fundraising team at the tournament was 2A's Grand High School, which raised $3,600.
In addition to the tournament, many other teams host pink games in separate fundraising efforts. To learn more about the organization or if your community is hosting a Pink Game, check the website www.swingforlife.org. This season two current high school players are cancer survivors. Saturday's tournament also included an opening ceremony honoring cancer survivors, and a media/sponsors softball game against high school coaches. The coaches won the contest by one run.
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