BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – There are 470,000 entries in the unabridged third edition of Webster’s Dictionary, but there is one solitary word that can instantly take someone’s breath away; one word that will cause people to stop in their own tracks; one word that can devastate a young family; one word that can make someone think the worst. That word? Cancer. And for the second time in two years, a Kokomo High School student-athlete listened as her doctor said words no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.”
“I thought I was going to die,” was Kokomo sophomore Ashley Ploughe’s initial thought after her doctor told her she had cancer at the age of 15. “I was scared to death because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
What happened was the Kokomo softball player and cheerleader put on a determined game face and fought the disease like any athlete would against a fierce opponent. After being diagnosed in mid-January with cervical cancer, she took the approach that she would not be defeated. Three months later, she proudly declares victory over The Big C. As her mom Regina Hicks said, “She is cancer free!”
“I didn’t know how long the journey would last or what I would have to go through,” said Ploughe, an honor roll student. “But I knew I would not lose and would do what it takes to win.”
Ploughe’s mom explained that the diagnosis of cancer in a teenager is something that affects the entire family, not just the patient.
“It is a very scary thought for everyone,” said Hicks. “She was 15 when she was diagnosed, but we found it and caught it early, which was key.”
The cancer was diagnosed towards the end of the boys basketball season, meaning Ploughe would start her fight at about the same time the boys basketball team was starting its fight for a sectional crown.
“It really affected our team; there were a lot of tears,” said Kokomo cheerleading coach Kelly Karickhoff. “It is a learning experience when something like this happens to your team. There were a lot of questions and concerns from her teammates.
“I am glad we found it and caught it early,” are words that Hicks will always cherish. If not for an early diagnosis, this story could have had a different ending. Ploughe’s mom said it was a routine checkup that ended up saving her daughter’s life.
“Her yearly pap smear came back abnormal,” said Hicks. “They did a colposcopy and they found two polyps which were cancerous. She then had exploratory surgery and found the cancer was just in the cervix. Then on March 2, (Ashley) underwent what turned out to be successful surgery – and here she is now.”
After discussing the painful surgery she watched her daughter go through, a joyful Hicks stated, “She is cancer free now. Everything has cleared – they will not have to do chemotherapy. We will only have to go back for periodic checkups.”
Western High School girls softball coach Jim Clouse was thrilled with Ashley’s prognosis and understands what she went through. A cancer survivor himself, Clouse said her checkups should only last for about five years.
“Five years is kind of the magic number for cancer to return,” explained Clouse. “I had to have tests every three months, but once I hit that five year anniversary, the chances drop so significantly I don’t have to have tests anymore. I am sure she will be the same way.”
Clouse, whose mother is currently fighting cancer, beat the dreaded disease and remembers exactly what he thought when the doctor sat him down with the diagnosis.
“What Ashley said that reminded me of my cancer was I too thought I was going to die,” said Clouse. “When you hear that word and your name, you think you are not going to live much longer.”
“It’s wonderful that the word cancer is not an absolute death sentence like it used to be,” added Kokomo softball coach Lisa Tate.
Recovery equals a return to athletics
Ploughe explained that after a surgery in which doctors removed her cancer-riddled cervix, she had two things on her mind – softball and cheerleading. She said she wanted to get back to the softball field this spring and to competitive cheerleading this summer – especially after being named a Wildkat varsity cheerleader for next school year.
“I knew I wanted to participate in them this year,” she said. “I just had to figure out if I could do it all and get back into it.”
Hicks said that her daughter was in extreme pain from the cancer and subsequent surgery – something no mother should have to watch in her child.
“She was in so much pain; it was hard to watch her in agony,” said Hicks. “But she is now nearly back to her old self. I am so thankful. We had a lot of family and friends praying, and it was an answered prayer. God was on our side!”
As soon as the doctors released her for physical activity, Ploughe said she started working out for the softball season.
“It was very hard at first because I had to work my way up to get to do everything,” said Ploughe. “I started with throwing, and then hitting, and now I am running as fast as I can; I just can’t slide yet. It was very hard and a lot to work through. I am about 90-percent recovered right now.”
Round two for the Lady Kats
Ploughe was diagnosed with cancer 13 months after another Kokomo Lady Wildkat was stricken. On Dec. 17, 2010, Kokomo swimmer Morgan Brantley was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But unlike Ploughe, Brantley’s fight proved to be costly as the young 17 year-old Wildkat lost her battle three months later.
“That was tough for everyone,” said Karickhoff. “When you are older, you know a lot more people who are fighting cancer. But you don’t expect it at such an early age, and that really made it hard. It was really personal.”
Ploughe’s battle with cancer reminded many Red and Blue faithful of Brantley’s fight. The Kokomo High School cheerleaders helped lead a fundraiser during Brantley’s battle against cancer. Kats for a Kure, which was spearheaded by the Wildkat cheerleaders and involved the Kokomo student body, raised thousands of dollars to help the family during its time of need.
“We just thought it was something we wanted to get involved in,” said Karickhoff. “And then when Morgan was affected, our girls just wanted to help because it was someone they all knew. Then this year, with Ashley, wow, two years in a row is very tough for this age group.”
Tate agreed with Karickhoff, noting how hard it is for students to comprehend a deadly disease at such a young age.
“The fact that the swim team just went through this with Morgan really hit home with our softball team,” said Tate. “Our girls really feel strong about battling cancer and that is why we wanted to help with a Cancer Awareness Game.”
Cancer awareness softball game
And now, after pushing her body to the limits, the hard work has paid off. A little more than three months after being diagnosed with cancer, Ploughe is scheduled to return to game action no-later-than the Kokomo at Western game on April 30 – which also happens to be the Cancer Awareness Game between the two local rivals.
“The game lets me know that my teammates are there to support me,” she said. “I am very happy that my friends are there for me and that helps me to get through the tough times and the struggles that I have had.”
Tate and Clouse said since both teams have been touched by cancer, it was a great fit to help a cause while they battle on the softball field. The teams had special T-shirts made and have been selling them as a fundraiser.
“As we were celebrating the good news that I was still cancer free after five years, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer,” Clouse said while explaining the meaning of the game. “She has had a great diagnosis, but still had part of her lung removed. That is one of the reasons Lisa and I are joining for this cause. It is great the kids are rallying around this.”
“We have been close friends for a long time,” said Tate. “It was natural to want to do something together. We actually had talked about this before I even knew (Ashley) was diagnosed. Our community has been affected by cancer, as has Jim personally. I guess fate had a hand in making this game.”
Tate said they chose the color lavender for the fundraising shirts as that color represents all cancers. In addition, Western will donate one dollar from every ticket sold at the gate and the Panther Pride Booster Club is donating all proceeds from that nights concession stand. The American Cancer Society will be the recipient of all donations, and they will be at the awareness game and will have a booth set up to distribute information. After the game, both teams will sit down and share a meal as one final sign of unity – and Ploughe will be in the middle of that huddle as a cancer survivor.
Now that Ashley Ploughe has stared cancer in the face and won, the now 16 year-old Lady Wildkat looks back on her ordeal and can take a deep breath. But she also understands what could have happened if her cancer wasn’t caught in time.
“You realize what you might miss,” said Ploughe as tears welled up in her young eyes. “You just are grateful.”
And Wildkat Nation is grateful that they are celebrating a young life saved, not another lost.