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Beating cancer to the punch

by Joshua Berenter / Detroit Red Wings

DETROIT – Kelly Rothe has made it a point her whole life to be prepared for everything. But nothing could’ve prepared the 20-year-old Ann Arbor, Mich., resident for the surprise she received on Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena.

Rothe, who carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, which makes her 87 percent susceptible to getting breast cancer, was one night away from undergoing a preventative bilateral mastectomy when she found out the Red Wings were throwing her family a private “good luck” dinner inside the Olympia Club at The Joe.

A lifelong Red Wings fan, Rothe was thrilled with the opportunity to spend a special evening with her family before becoming the youngest patient ever to endure the procedure at Beaumont Health System in Royal Oak on Friday.

But the night’s surprises had just begun.

After dinner, Rothe was greeted by her favorite band, Kaleido, who serenaded her with their original song, “Love Design”. Kaleido offered Rothe and her family a tour of the Red Wings’ locker room where Rothe found the jersey of her favorite player, Jimmy Howard, hanging in his stall. The jersey was accompanied by a breast cancer awareness gift bag filled with Red Wings memorabilia.

Just when Rothe thought the surprises were over, Howard came around the corner and personally greeted her with flowers, autographed the jersey and invited her to Breast Cancer Awareness Night at Joe Louis Arena next season.

“I fell to the floor and screamed,” Rothe said about her first reaction when she saw Howard. “I’m a huge Jimmy Howard fan. I just love his general attitude and his personality and his humbleness. And I have a thing for goalies so it fits.”

In 2002, when she was only nine years old, Rothe lost her mother to breast cancer. Shortly after, her aunt passed away after battling the same crippling disease. For a young woman who’s been through so much, meeting her favorite player was exactly what Rothe said she needed the night before surgery.

“You don’t even know (how much this means to me),” she said, holding back tears.

Rothe, who was diagnosed with the same gene mutation that took the lives of her mother and aunt, said she always looks for a silver lining and she’s turned the unthinkable tragedy that her family has suffered into a positive, growing experience.

“I always say everything happens for a reason. People are always shocked when I include my mom’s death in that, but honestly, I believe that happened for a reason. And that reason is my family,” she said. “I’m crying talking about them but losing (my mom) made my family so strong, and you know that when you talk to them.”

Howard said he was excited about the opportunity to be a part of Rothe’s surprise, and that her bravery is inspirational, not only for people dealing with cancer, but for everyone who hears her story.

“It’s uplifting, I think, for both of us. She’s such a courageous young girl. She’s really brave in what she’s doing. For me, it’s nice to be able to return the favor because I know she’s cheered a lot for me,” Howard said. “To be 20 years old and to be going through this, it’s got to be nerve wracking, but at the same time, she’s shown a lot of courage.”

Rothe found out about the gene mutation three days after her 18th birthday and since then, she’s done everything she can to research the pros and cons of getting a bilateral mastectomy – the removal of both breasts – at such a young age.

After learning that the procedure reduces the risk of cancer by about 90 percent, and that the surgery will be fully insured, the Eastern Michigan University junior said it was an easy decision.

“It’s like dismantling a bomb,” Rothe said. “You have a bomb strapped to your chest and they’re going to dismantle it. How much of a relief is that?”

Her father, Robert, and her 17-year-old twin siblings, Evan and Samantha, have been inspired by her courage and supportive of her decision every step of the way.

“I told her that she’s my idol. This is beyond belief and she’s never wavered,” Rothe’s father said. “Anybody that knows Kelly knows how strong she feels about wanting to live and how strong she feels about educating people. I support her 100 percent to do what she’s doing while she’s healthy instead of racing the clock.”

Rothe’s story has captured national attention. After reading an article about the brave young woman, producer Alan Blassberg contacted the family about including her in a documentary about breast cancer awareness for men and women called “Pink & Blue”.

Blassberg hopes to internationally share the documentary in September at film festivals and with networks including HBO, PBS and the Discovery Channel. He was captivated by Rothe’s journey and knew she could help spread awareness.

“Her courage and gumption at 20 years old is amazing. She’s the youngest person we know to ever have (a mastectomy). That’s a story that I wanted to cover and help educate young people to what BRCA is,” Blassberg said. “The Red Wings took the time and really paid attention to the message. Kelly’s story definitely will save lives.”

Rothe also relishes the chance to spread awareness through her story and the documentary.

“I have the opportunity to help people and educate people about this gene and about preventative measures. It’s been a journey. I get negative comments, of course, but the positive outweigh that 100 times,” she said. “This gene is not a death sentence. I’ve got to keep making it public and do whatever I can to make sure people know about this gene and what it does.”

The Red Wings proudly participate in the NHL’s league-wide initiative, Hockey Fights Cancer, hosting special game nights each season to raise money and awareness in the fight against cancer.

Last October, the Wings raised nearly $52,000 on Breast Cancer Awareness Night to help cover the cost of breast cancer screening and treatment for uninsured and underinsured women at Liggett Breast Center in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and the Weisberg Cancer Treatment Center in Farmington Hills, Mich.

The Red Wings hosted Hockey Fights Cancer Night on October 26, signing fans up for the Delete Blood Cancer bone marrow registry and fundraising more than $14,750 for the NHL Foundation and Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids.

Next season, 2014 Breast Cancer Awareness Night will mark the eighth annual event for the Red Wings, and Rothe said she will be one of the loudest fans in attendance.

“That will be a whole other ordeal, coming here as Jimmy Howard’s guest. Wow,” she said. “It means the world to me.”

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