AML Strikes Out

Penn State softball player Kari Lucas was diagnosed with leukemia last June. With a smile on her face and special medals on her neck, she has beaten the disease back into remission. Now she's focused on regaining her starting job.

Kari Lucas received the necklace from a family friend before her first round of chemotherapy.

It displays the Catholic cross and a symbol of the Virgin Mary. Lucas first strapped the necklace around her neck nine months ago. Now, she says with a smile, she will never take it off.

“I had to grow up really fast,” explained the infielder for the Penn State softball team. “I saw life and death right in my face at 20 years old. I don't take anything for granted because I've come so close to having everything taken away from me.”

Lucas is back on the field for the Nittany Lions, but softball season seemed so far away last June, when she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, more commonly referred to as AML.

After a freshman campaign in which Lucas started 28 games, she spent the beginning of last summer working for the Penn State grounds crew. In early June, she noticed lesions on her right ankle and decided to take a trip to Centre Medical Services Building for an appointment with Dr. Charlie Howsare.

“We see that kind of thing all the time, whether it's poison ivy, insects, hypersensitivity to rag weed or various things,” Howsare said of Lucas' rash.

The following week, Lucas went back to Howsare's office for the final of three visits. While the rash had calmed down, Lucas and a nurse noticed that her lymph nodes were swollen. They were not sure if the swelling was due to the new medication she was taking, an allergy or something else. Howsare had blood work done as a precaution.

The results revealed Lucas had a white blood cell count of 50,000, almost five times normal. Howsare expressed his concern and told Lucas he would call when the results were confirmed.

The phone rang at the Lucas household later that afternoon. With Lucas in the shower, her mother Cheryl answered. Howsare told her her daughter had been diagnosed with AML and needed to be taken to Hershey Medical Center.

“We both just sort of went to the ground, hugging each other,” Cheryl said. “I was just numb, shocked and in disbelief because this was a healthy girl. One morning, you're on your way to work and that night you're headed to Hershey Medical Center.”

Lucas spent all but 26 days of the remaining summer in the pediatric unit of the Hershey Medical Center.

She underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, the last of which came on Sept. 20. Instead of spending her summer working and hanging out with her friends and teammates, Lucas was confined to a hospital bed. She never spent a night alone, as her father would take the 90-minute drive to Hershey on Mondays. Then Lucas' mom accompanied her from Wednesday until Friday. Usually, it was another family friend or relative staying with her on the weekends.

As friends, family and coaches visited Lucas and searched for the right words to comfort her, they were often surprised. Friend and teammate Leigh Murray remembers seeing Lucas' grin when she first saw her in Hershey.

“She was her same old smiling self,” Murray said. “It was like she was putting our minds at ease about what she was going through because we were all scared and concerned. She explained everything that was happening. We went up there to make her feel better but it was like she made us feel better. She just had a great outlook on the whole thing.”

Those close to Lucas said she has always possessed that sort of personality, to be the one constantly picking up others and remaining optimistic.

Lucas said she was down emotionally during treatment less than a handful of times. However, she added that the most difficult part was when visitors would leave, while she meanwhile had no idea when she would next get to spend a night in her own bed.

Yet not even the physical effects of chemotherapy could erase the smile from her face. She endured ulcers, sporadic headaches and even lost her hair. Some close to her wondered how she had the strength to comfort them and let them know she would beat the disease.

The elementary education major said the other children in the pediatric unit, most of whom were younger, inspired her and occupied a majority of her down time.

“Most of them had what I had, but some had other types of cancers,” she said. “We would talk about everything besides what we were going through. We drew strength from one another. I know I got a lot of strength and courage from them. You kind of lose age when you go through something like this.”

Though Lucas said it was the children who helped her, she certainly had an effect on them. When she lost her hair, Lucas did not wear a wig because she felt it was unnecessary. Her decision affected one special 8-year-old girl with whom Lucas had become friendly.

“She had ordered her wig, but then when I visited her, her mom said 'Kari, she doesn't want a wig because she wants to be like you,' ” Lucas explained.

Aside from the children, Lucas used softball as a source of motivation. It is a sport that has been a part of her life since fourth grade, after she had first developed her skills playing Little League with the boys. As a high school student at nearby Penns Valley High, Lucas said she always knew she wanted to go to Penn State. As a freshman, she was a preferred walk on, meaning she knew she would make the team but did not receive a scholarship.

Penn State softball coach Robin Petrini said after Lucas was diagnosed with AML, the young athlete made it clear she intended to resume her softball career.

“We knew all along that her goal was to get back on the field,” said Petrini, who was on the road recruiting when she heard the news of Lucas' illness. “I talked to a couple different doctors on what the prognosis might be, and they all said the same thing: it depends on the individual. I was concerned that if softball was taken away, it would have a negative impact on her.”

Softball wasn't taken away from Lucas, as she's back on the field where teammates say they really don't see any change in her demeanor. As Murray explained, Lucas has always been upbeat, has never taken anything for granted and still makes the most of her opportunities. It didn't take a life-altering experience to make her appreciate life.

On Oct. 14, she achieved full remission. Lucas, who said she felt her heart drop to her stomach when she first discovered she had leukemia, said she ate the biggest meal of her life that day and all the tissues in the world couldn't wipe away her tears of happiness.

Lucas' mother, who lost her 34-year-old brother to cancer 17 years ago, said she is grateful to everyone from God to the physicians to her family and friends. As she tries to answer questions about the last nine months, she describes the entire period as a blur.

“In the long term, her stamina was what always amazed me,” Cheryl Lucas said after taking a deep breath to gather her thoughts. “She's always focused on the task at hand. If anyone was going to get through it, it was her.”

Lucas saw action in six of Penn State's first 10 games this year, with one hit in four at-bats. She knows she must work hard to regain a spot in the starting lineup.

Her role may be reduced, but the ever-present smile is still there. So is the necklace.

They've both become permanent parts of Kari Lucas' life.

Learn More About AML Here.


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