Last season, Katie Dudas - one of the Penguins Foundation 50-50 Raffle sellers at the team's home games - bought a purple Hockey Fights Cancer pin with the Penguins logo and stuck it on her badge.
No one knew at the time, but it was incredibly significant to her because Dudas was waging a private battle with Stage 2 breast cancer.
"That pin, to me, was just a nice little reminder and a motivator that there's a whole group and a whole organization that will be there for me when I finally feel comfortable coming out with the news, which was important," she said. "I think having that support system and just knowing people are there for you is so huge."
Dudas, 40, has been with the Penguins organization in various capacities since she first interned with the Community Relations department in the summer of 2009. And while that tends to be a down time because of the offseason, fortunately for Dudas, the Penguins were in the midst of their Stanley Cup championship run.
"One of my first game day experiences was handing out towels at the door of the Igloo in the Stanley Cup playoffs," recalled Dudas, who became a Penguins fan after her brother Patrick took her to her first game when she was 16.
Ever since then, Dudas has worked game nights at PPG Paints Arena in different capacities. In addition to serving as one of the game night managers for the 50-50 Raffle, she also works as a concierge in premium seating for other arena events and helps out with the Foundation's signature events, like the Night of Assists Gala and Summer Sticks golf tournament.
"From the day I first met Katie when she interviewed with me, she has always been one of the most optimistic and happy people that I have known," said Cindy Himes, director of community/alumni relations for the Penguins Foundation. "She loves the Penguins and has been a tremendous asset in each of her roles within our organization. We are very lucky to have her as a member of the Penguins family and she has our unwavering support in her fight against cancer."
Dudas first learned about her diagnosis on Dec. 24, 2019. And what made the already intense news even more heavy was that her mother Kathy had gone through the same situation that year after being diagnosed with breast cancer that March.
During that season's Hockey Fights Cancer month, Katie had put a photo of the two of them into one of the 'I Fight For' signs that still hangs on Kathy's fridge to this day.
"I went from caregiver, like I was with her that whole process, to patient," Dudas said. "And it's not even genetic, which is the wild thing. So when I was diagnosed on the 24th, I knew exactly what the whole thing looked like. I knew what chemo was like, I knew what surgery was like, and I was done. I was just like, I can't do this."
From there, everything was a blur as Dudas tried to figure out her treatment plan knowing that her insurance would be running out at the end of the year. At that point, Dudas decided that she didn't want to tell anyone outside of her family until she knew for sure what was going on. Because with her young age, a lot of testing was involved.
That meant for a while, Dudas was still working Penguins games without anyone knowing what she was dealing with. The day of her first chemotherapy treatment on Feb. 11, Dudas went to the hospital in the morning and to PPG Paints Arena for a game against Tampa Bay that night.
"At one point, I was like, listen - I don't have the flu, I'm not pregnant - but I'm really sick and I probably should go home," she said. "I thought, I can do this, I'll be fine. And then I wasn't fine."
Dudas eventually told her friends and coworkers at the Penguins what was going on, and received amazing support as she continued to come to work once she got used to the treatments.
Not only did they pool money together to cover a month of Dudas' medical bills - while dropping off baked goods like cookies and banana bread - they also made a gesture that brought her to tears.
As her hair started falling out from chemo over the ensuing weeks, Dudas decided to shave her head on Feb. 29. The Penguins were holding their '90s Theme Night just a few days later on March 3. When Dudas arrived at the office ahead of the game, the women from the raffle all walked in wearing matching pink and blue wigs.
"People were probably looking at us like, what is wrong with you, and we're like yay, 90s game!" Dudas said with a laugh. "I sobbed because I wasn't ready. I hadn't gone public with it. And I was like, I don't know how to tell people about this. And so they gave me a wig and we all wore wigs. And it was just it was such a relief to me because I wasn't at the point where I was ready to talk about this publicly."
Dudas did reach that point a few days later, and decided to share her story on social media. One friend did her makeup while another took photos that she used for the post, which Dudas wanted to be honest and up-front - "here's what I'm looking at, here's what I've dealt with, here's what the next step looks like" - while showing people that she was still going to be smiling through it all.
Once Dudas shared the post to her Facebook and Instagram accounts, the support came pouring in, which was overwhelming in the best way possible. And it turned out to be more needed than ever, because the following week, everything got shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant Dudas, who was now immunocompromised, couldn't see any of her friends.
And medically, to make an already scary situation even more stressful, Dudas couldn't bring what they call a 'support person' to sit with her during her chemo treatments. So she had to go in by herself. Fortunately, the nurse oncologists at UPMC Magee were wonderful.
"They would hang out and make sure you're okay," she said. "I played Animal Crossing or I downloaded Hallmark movies, because I'm a sap. So I would mostly just amuse myself with stuff during the treatments. But still, that was scary."
But when Dudas would arrive home, the protocol was that she had to immediately remove her clothing and head straight into the shower, then disinfect everything. Dudas also was told there was a chance she might have to modify her surgery, as she initially wanted to get a double mastectomy, but was told that was considered elective and they may only be able to do a single mastectomy.
"It was insane, and every day, I'm like, what's going to happen next?" Dudas said.
When it was all said and done, Dudas went through 16 rounds of chemo that ended in late June. She had her double mastectomy in early August. She started radiation in late September, and did 27 rounds before completing those treatments on Oct. 22.
After completing her chemo and her radiation, Dudas rang the bell at UPMC. The first time, she wore a shirt with the names of everyone who had donated to her GoFundMe or commented on her posts or sent cards. She asked the hospital staff what to do, and they told her to read the plaque and then ring the bell.
The plaque reads, 'Donated from one survivor to another.' And as Dudas took in those words, she began sobbing.
"I never realized how much of a release of emotions one time that would be," she said. "Just so much relief and so much had happened in those months and it was like, oh my gosh, I survived this step. Because I'm usually pretty active, and then I got my butt handed to me by chemo, and I just couldn't believe the toll it took on my body."
Throughout it all, Dudas has been documenting every step of her journey on her social media platforms, sharing photos, videos and insight into what it's like dealing with cancer - the good, the bad and the ugly.
"We don't talk about the battle because people are very private about what they're going through," Dudas said. "I think they may be embarrassed, because your body is not yours, your mind is not yours. But one of the things people have told me is that me talking about it made them appreciate what their family members have gone through. Because they didn't talk about it, and they had no idea like how taxing it is on the body. No matter how tough you think you are, cancer and being treated for cancer brings you down, and it's so hard."
For the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer month, which creates awareness and raises funds to fight cancer, that's something Dudas hopes people take away. She also hopes that they realize that it can affect anyone of any age.
"Being aware of changes in your body is huge, and pushing for the proper care and going to the places that are going to diagnose you so you can start this battle is really a big thing," she said. "Because I was diagnosed at 39. They don't even suggest getting your first mammogram until you're 40."
Dudas' battle still isn't over. She'll be getting reconstruction surgery in the middle of next year, and will be on hormone suppression medication for the next 10 years. But through it all, Dudas has been and will continue to be her usual positive, optimistic and hopeful self - and she's looking forward to getting back to work at Penguins games at some point in the future.
"I'm going to sob at the first game next year," she said. "I just know it. It's going to be so nice to be back."
You can follow Katie's journey on her Facebook, Twitter (@kdudders) and Instagram (@katemariepgh) accounts.
After this feature was published, the Penguins invited Katie down to PPG Paints Arena for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Full video here.
For more information on the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative, click here.