The XL Center in Hartford was awash in pink as fans switched out their UConn blue for pink apparel on Sunday, Jan. 29th for the annual UConn Women’s Basketball Play4Kay game.
Play4Kay brings communities together and honors cancer survivors in their struggle with cancers affecting women. Play4Kay was the vision of Hall of Fame Coach Kay Yow of the University of North Carolina, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987 and after a 22-year on-again, off-again public battle, passed away in 2009.
The game unites players, coaches, officials, and fans to do something for the greater good that exceeds wins and losses in competition.
The UConn women’s basketball team invited breast cancer survivors, their families, doctors, and staff from the Breast Cancer Program at the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health, to participate in the celebration at the game.
Survivors were honored on the court before the game, and then stood outside the players’ tunnel to high-five and cheer on the starting Huskies. Later, the survivors were invited back to center court during halftime with the doctors and staff to recognize those who have survived either in person or through a family member remembering them. Participants included breast cancer survivors, those going through treatment, those who lost a loved one, and those who treat and care for these special women.
Cassandra Keola, a 10-year survivor of breast cancer and facilitator of a young survivor meeting at UConn Health, survived stage 3 breast cancer that had metastasized and still has mammograms, CT scans, and blood draws each year to make sure her cancer stays in remission.
For Keola, events such as this remind her of the things that she has overcome and fought with resilience and strength.
Dr. Susan Tannenbaum, chief of the Division of Hematology -Oncology in the Department of Medicine remembered a special patient of hers from 13 years ago, who was a great basketball player herself at the University of Maine. Stacey Clingan was diagnosed at just 35, with two young children, Donovan ’26 and Olivia. Stacey passed five years ago, and her mother Debbie Porrini never left her side during her treatments. Her legacy lives on through her children: Donovan is a freshman at UConn and plays with her number on his jersey on the men’s basketball team. Oliva, a senior in high school will attend Clemson University in the fall to study business.
“Survivors live long beyond their actual life through their loved ones and friends,” said Tannenbaum. “They become the survivors. We never forget our patients or their families.”
Sally Wisniewski, who has now struggled breast cancer for almost five years, spoke of how special the event made her feel, underscoring the purpose of the event: supporting those who have gone through this difficult experience, and letting them know they are not alone.
Keola also noted that caregivers don’t always get as much recognition, and they are just as much a part of this journey behind the scenes.
Dr. Christina Stevenson- Surgical Oncology and Breast Cancer Program Director, Dr. Susan Tannenbaum- Medical Oncology, Dr. Sarah Loschiavo-Supportive and Survivorship Care, Jessica Santos-Martinez- Breast Cancer Program Coordinator and Melissa Torres- Community Health Specialist- Breast Cancer Program all took center court at halftime with their team members in recognition for their care and support of these survivors. They were then joined by the survivors as the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
“By recognizing our survivors not only are we honoring them, but it allows us all to remember to enjoy the little things no matter how difficult things can be,” said Santos-Martinez. “Seeing the smiles on their faces is the reason why we do what we do day in and day out. It makes it all worthwhile.”
Survivors ranging from 10 years of survivorship to those currently in treatment were presented with a special basketball signed by UConn women’s basketball players at the end of the halftime presentation and were able to enjoy a nail-biter second half with the Huskies coming off with the win against Villanova in the last few seconds of the game.