Cover Story: A Mother’s Dream

Posted By on January 2, 2020

Four sisters unite to fight ovarian cancer

            Colleen Drury loved to read, exercise, travel, cook and spend time with family and friends. The mother of four daughters — Nicole Cundiff, Danielle Kamm, Michelle Batschelet and Billie Drury — she and her husband raised their family in the Arcadia neighborhood and were active in the community and their girls’ lives. When their oldest, Nicole, was young, Colleen went back to Arizona State University to get a nursing degree.

            “It was cool to see her make sacrifices to not only care for us very well but to achieve her own dreams,” Nicole said.

            Colleen’s was a blessed life, spent tending to her close-knit family, enjoying her many friends and working with causes like Easter Seals of Arizona and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

            “Colleen was special,” said Nicole’s husband, Billy Cundiff. “She was truly the life of the party in a very positive way.”

            So when Colleen started experiencing physical discomfort in 2007, no one imagined it was anything dire. She chalked the symptoms up to hitting her 50s and scheduled checkups with several doctors. But the symptoms started to mount. “I remember when I moved home from Texas, we had to stop almost every hour for her to go to the bathroom,” Nicole said.

            Colleen went from doctor to doctor, looking for a reason for her afflictions, but they couldn’t find one. “She told them what she was experiencing and how uncomfortable she was. Her

gastroenterologist scheduled a colonoscopy, but they couldn’t perform the test because there was an obstruction. And then her gynecologist tried to perform an internal exam and she jumped off the table. But that didn’t trigger anything for them,” Nicole said. “They sent her home and said, ‘We’ll try again in a few months.’”

            Meanwhile, Colleen became bloated. “She looked five months pregnant and could hardly walk,” Michelle said.

Things came to a head during a rafting trip down to the Grand Canyon.

“She had a distended belly and couldn’t eat,” Billie said.

            Finally, a family friend recognized that this was a problem beyond menopause and said, “We need to check you out. Please meet me at the hospital.” They ran a gamut of tests — a CA-125 blood test, an MRI, a CAT scan — and they had their diagnosis.

            It was ovarian cancer, the leading cause of gynecologic cancer deaths among women in the United States. At the time of Colleen’s diagnosis, the family didn’t know about ovarian cancer, even though Colleen was a nurse and had worked on what is now the oncology floor at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

            Because it’s considered a rare disease — only 25,000 women a year are diagnosed in the U.S. — ovarian cancer is not at the forefront of doctors’ minds. Sadly, because of its vague symptoms, women and their physicians often attribute the signs to other causes, which extends the time to diagnosis and increases the odds of metastasis.

            Indeed, Colleen’s cancer had progressed to stage 3(c). By the time she was diagnosed, she was looking at a likely death sentence.

            What got the family through the initial shock was Colleen’s attitude. She knew there was a small percentage of women who beat the disease and fully intended to be one of them. “And we believed her,” Nicole said.

            Thrust into a frightful world of surgeries, chemotherapy and uncertainty, the family rallied. Nicole, Danielle and Michelle took Colleen for treatments at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and Billie, then a college student in Iowa, flew in whenever she could. “It was hard to be away and be so young when she was diagnosed. I was 19, and I don’t think I had a clear understanding of what we were facing and how brutal it really was,” she said.

            The family dealt with the tough treatments and dim prognosis in the best way they could — by taking action. Dismayed that so many doctors could miss the diagnosis, they wanted to understand why. The answer was simple: There is no early-detection screening tool. So they took it upon themselves to raise money to give to the University of Arizona because they were thankful for the hope they had been given by getting Colleen the proper treatment there. The family held a backyard party for some 300 people and raised thousands of dollars.

            Around the same time, the girls started a blog to keep friends apprised of Colleen’s situation. It received thousands of hits, as people near and far kept tabs on Colleen’s cancer journey. “It was incredible to see how the community was invested,” Nicole said. Some of the posts were raw and personal and, because of that, people felt close to the family’s experience.

            “It was very therapeutic,” Danielle said.

            As the family processed their feelings, their attitude shifted from feeling sorry for themselves to being angry at the medical system to focusing on the future that they had. “Colleen made all of them shift their focus. I think that was valuable,” Billy said. “Instead of focusing on her being sick, they focused on how can we get our mom better? How can we get ready for the next trip? How can we look forward to life events? It was a good place to put their emotions, to focus on all of the things their mom wanted to do.”

            A National Football League placekicker at the time, Billy frequently moved around the country as he got signed by various teams. But he was out of football from 2007 to 2009, the hardest period of Colleen’s treatment. Happily, her health tracked his NFL career, and Colleen was in good shape when he returned to the game. She was able to travel to Baltimore to help the growing family when Billy played for the Ravens. “It was a lot of fun to ride that wave of positivity,” Billy said.

            Unfortunately, the wave broke in 2012. Colleen no longer responded to treatment, the cancer had metastasized to her lungs, and the sisters knew their mother’s time was short.

            Again, the family used the experience to create something positive. Nicole and Billy decided to use his NFL platform to jumpstart their fundraising efforts and make a real impact on women’s lives. They started the nonprofit Colleen’s Dream, with Nicole as CEO and Colleen serving on the board, to raise money for early detection research for ovarian cancer.

            Colleen died on February 23, 2013. But again, the family took the painful experience and pivoted to create something hopeful. Inspired by the fun backyard events they had held to raise funds for research, the sisters decided to hold a full-blown gala at Arizona Country Club on the first anniversary of their mother’s passing. “I was excited about the idea of putting our energy into another event. We knew that our family and friends would appreciate it,” Michelle said.

            The sisters hoped 75 people would attend and that they would raise $5,000 — but they took in more than $100,000 that night. And there was a buzz around the event because it attracted a different, younger demographic and had a laid-back, festive feel, like a large wedding.

            Billy’s NFL connections didn’t hurt. “We had some pretty stringent criteria in the sense that we wanted people that would come and interact with guests,” Billy said. “Yes, they were in the NFL, but they stayed and drank and danced, so it was fun to have a group of athletes. And almost every single one would ask, when’s the date next year? So it started to catch on.”

            The sisters threw themselves into the planning and looked forward to the event year after year. “It was trial by fire, but we put the work in,” Danielle said. “We learned from the mistakes the first year and we improved upon it the following year and then the following year. And it just continued to get bigger.”

            In the process, they’ve formed a real community through Colleen’s Dream. Recently, Patrick Scales, a long snapper for the Chicago Bears, donated his game-day paycheck for the cause. And Lorenzo Alexander, a Buffalo Bills linebacker, has dedicated his last season to raising awareness about ovarian cancer and Colleen’s Dream. “He and I have been talking about the different proposals that we received from the research institution close to where he lives and where we’re going to put that money,” Nicole said.

            On the flip side, though the year has been good monetarily for Colleen’s Dream, the fundraising is partially due to the fact that ovarian cancer took the lives of three women close to the organization. “Colleen’s Dream meant so much to them that they put their memorial gifts to us,” Nicole said. “That’s bittersweet. There is no greater honor than a family calling you and saying, ‘My wife loved you all so much she wants to help continue with your mission. On the one hand, you want to be thankful, and on the other hand, you apologize because you couldn’t do enough for them.”

            That’s why Colleen’s Dream will continue its work. To date, the foundation has given out $1.7 million for research on the cutting-edge of modern science. The hope is to find a screening tool — be it a urine test, blood test or something else — that is scalable, affordable and that women can access easily.

            Though the journey has been difficult, the sisters agree that having a way to make sense of losing their mom has been a gift. “Colleen’s Dream has been an incredible place to do active grieving and put our time and energy and be able to be together and have that shared experience. And to watch people rally around us has been extremely humbling,” Michelle said.

            Though Colleen has been gone for close to seven years, the family says they still feel her presence. When things are hard, and the sisters start to consider putting their time and energy into other things, a door will open. “I can’t help but think that it’s her opening that door,” Nicole said. “The coolest things happen, and it reminds me how important this work is and the promises that we made her.”

            The whole family agrees that Colleen was the star of the family. “People gravitated towards her,” Billy said. “She was magnetic.”

            Colleen used to call the girls her “penguins” because they would follow her around. “We just loved being with her, which is part of why we are the way that we are together,” Michelle said. “We could have just crawled up in a ball and been done with it. But to take the experience and do something with it keeps us close. It turned something that is awful into something amazing.”

            And so the sisters remain close and enjoy the constant laughter and easy rapport they’ve had since they were young girls. Their mom used to tell them, “Attitude is everything, so pick a good one,” and they’ve done just that. “Putting positivity out in the world, especially when you’re sad, helps shift your perspective off the negative things that are happening in your life,” Billie said. “Philanthropy was very important to her, and she dedicated a lot of her life to it. So I think watching her daughters live on that legacy is something that makes her very proud.”

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Karen Werner

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.