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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Kathy Howa, right, talks with 15-year-old Shelby Abeyta during the Swing for Life ceremony at Cottonwood Softball Complex on Saturday, April 24, 2010. Howa created the nonprofit Swing for Life that allows other sports teams to help the Huntsman Cancer Institute in its research and education efforts.

SALT LAKE CITY — Kathy Howa doesn’t understand how or why cancer occurs. She doesn’t understand the science of how researchers are trying to eliminate or cure it.

She is, after all, a softball coach — not a scientist.

But every researcher who dreams of curing the insidious disease that affects millions of lives each year owes this softball coach a debt of gratitude.

That’s because while she may not understand the science of finding a cure for cancer, she does understand the desperate fear that grips a person when they face a cancer diagnosis.

She understands because on Aug. 23, 2002, Howa listened to a doctor tell her that she had the most common type of breast cancer, and that she’d need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to cure it.

But cancer didn’t just disrupt her life.

It completely changed it.

Rather than just getting back to the life she had before nearly a year of cancer treatments, she decided she wanted a little revenge. It wasn’t enough to beat cancer herself. She wanted to do something that might lead to a day when no one has to sit in a doctor’s office, gripped by that same debilitating fear.

She knew that the best way to eradicate the disease was help those researchers. She called a few friends — fellow softball coaches and supportive parents — and decided to do what she did best — play softball.

While she was still enduring radiation therapy, she planned the first Swing For Life event. It was a hit-a-thon that involved three schools, including her own, and raised $18,000.

This weekend, for the 11th year in a row, the charity that she started in the waning days of her treatment — Swing For Life — will raise money for the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

The goal this year is to surpass the $1 million mark.

“It’s a definite,” said Howa, who will oversee this week of awareness and fundraising activities at Rowland Hall. The effort involves dozens of high school teams, including the nearly two dozen teams that will play in this weekend’s Swing For Life softball tournament at Valley and Cottonwood Complexes. Saturday’s tournament begins with opening ceremonies at 8:30 a.m. and will honor the teams who’ve raised money for the effort, as well as cancer survivors. It will include a game between media and high school coaches and the state’s professional mascots. The first games begin at 10:45 a.m.

“It’s a different atmosphere,” Howa said of this weekend’s tournament. “Even during the games, there are just comfortable conversations everywhere you go during the day. The kids get along. It’s more like a community gathering. It’s not really like that when you’re playing games all through the season.”

She said the draw is a chance for the teams to raise money in conjunction with the communities that support them.

For instance, at Pleasant Grove High School, the softball team worked with the school’s student council to create a number of fundraising events throughout a cancer awareness week.

“We will be bringing a check for $3,400 with us to the tournament,” said coach Jim Clark. And he expects that the cooperative effort will yield more money next year. Anyone can support the efforts of these teams by donating in the name of a high school program or by showing up at Valley Complex Saturday and buying items donated by vendors, including food.

Howa is continually moved, impressed and inspired by how teams find ways to earn money for a cause that could eventually help us all. She said part of what’s impressive is how they make fundraising — normally a dreaded activity for sports teams — so enjoyable.

“We are so lucky,” said Howa of the support Swing For Life has among the sports community. “I think when you make something that is so important, and make it fun to do, not a chore, I think the kids enjoy it so much, and it becomes something that’s important to them too.”

The effort to raise money for the same organization, the same effort, creates a kind of cooperative feeling among all of the teams that participate.

“That’s what draws a lot of people,” she said. “Everybody teams up together, and when one of these parents, or kids, ends up being affected by this, we turn into one big team. Everyone rallies for them. They want to help these people out.” The fundraising efforts of Swing For Life now include every college in the state and many throughout the country.

Howa still can’t quite believe how massive the effort to help researchers eradicate cancer has become, but she is more grateful than words can express.

So she’ll spend the week talking about prevention, education and research. And then on Saturday morning, she’ll play softball in defiance of the disease and in celebration of the teams who share her belief in a cancer-free world.

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