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Holliday's mom enlists him for colon cancer awareness

Rare diagnosis for mother of Cardinals outfielder sparks educational campaign

ST. LOUIS -- Kathy Holliday will spend much of her Mother's Day in transit, beginning the day at her North Carolina home before ending it in a place where her life changed in 2012.

She'll land at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and drive to the nearby home of her son, Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday. There, Kathy will be consumed by the joy she gets when being around her grandchildren. They'll laugh and play and honor Kathy on a day set aside to recognize the matriarchs of families.

What they won't spend much time doing is talking about cancer.

But it is cancer that brings her here.

Kathy Holliday -- the wife of a longtime college baseball coach and mother of two sons who also make their careers in the sport -- never sought to emerge as a spokesperson for anything. She admits that she's most comfortable "operating in the background."

But life and perspective and priorities changed with an October 2012 diagnosis. And if someone else can avoid the sequence of events that the Holliday family experienced last fall by Kathy putting her name and face to an initiative, she's willing to do so.

That's why she'll spend the day after Mother's Day at Busch Stadium, urging others to get the colon cancer screening that she never thought she'd need.

* * * * *

According to the American Cancer Society, one out of every 20 individuals will be diagnosed with colon cancer during their lifetime. The percentage is higher for men than it is for women, which is why Kathy, several years ago, insisted that her husband, Tom, get a routine screening.

Kathy knew that once she turned 50, she, too, should have one. But a woman who describes herself as "the health Nazi" in the family didn't see the urgency. She hadn't consumed red meat since she was 12. She didn't drink soft drinks or eat processed foods. She worked out regularly.

"I think I thought in my head that I do all the right things and I'll be fine," Kathy said. "I thought with my lifestyle that I was not a likely candidate for it. Obviously, cancer doesn't play favorites, but as far as the things that you should do, I pretty much followed everything. That was how I believed in living."

She realized, though, that something was off last summer. Kathy began to tire too easily while working out. A doctor told her it was due to low iron, but her body didn't respond in her attempts to boost that iron count. It was later suggested that she have a colonoscopy, just to rule out any concerns about cancer. That was in September.

Kathy, 58 years old at the time, waited until the next month to follow through. And when she did, the diagnosis -- colon cancer -- came back immediately.

"A lot of people think colon cancer is an older man's affliction," Kathy said. "I think that's one of the reasons that they think I'm a good person to get out there and say, 'It can happen to anyone.' I kind of had my own false sense of security."

* * * * *

The Cardinals were in Washington, their attention transfixed on advancing past the 98-win Nationals and on to the National League Championship Series, when Matt Holliday got the phone call.

"You never expect it, especially to someone who has taken care of themselves so well over their lifespan," Matt said. "I think it just goes to show you that cancer can get anyone. Everyone was surprised."

In between his preparation for playoff games, Holliday picked the brains of members of the Cards' medical staff to learn more about colon cancer and treatment options. He was directed to the doctors at the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Not only is the facility recognized as one of the best in the nation, but it was only miles away from Matt Holliday's home. He urged his mother to consider having her treatments there.

Days after she agreed, Kathy Holliday went into surgery on the morning of Oct. 18. Matt was among the family members at the hospital when his mother woke up, just hours before the Cardinals were to face the Giants in Game 4 of the NLCS. He went on to deliver a pair of RBI hits that night, leading the Cards to an 8-3 victory.

"When you come out here, you realize this is just a game," Matt said. "That is real-life stuff. You deal with it as best you can. I just try to go out here and do the best I can and then go home and do the best I can for my family."

Kathy was discharged from the hospital three days later, the day Game 6 of the NLCS was played in San Francisco.

"I'm the kind of mother who is always more concerned with how things are going for my boys and their families," Kathy said. "I didn't want to break up Matt's concentration or thought. Everyone says this puts stuff in perspective, and it does. But this is what Matt does for a job. I felt really bad that he would have to worry about this. But he wouldn't like for me to say that. He certainly understands priorities and what is truly important."

* * * * *

Four months later, Kathy is in Jupiter, Fla. It's Spring Training and with her cancer in remission, she isn't about to miss out on additional time with Matt and his family. But there is work to do, too.

Over the winter, representatives from the Siteman Cancer Center reached out to Kathy to see if she, along with Matt, would step up as spokespersons for colon cancer screenings. They agreed.

During Kathy's Spring Training visits, several public service announcements for the "Cancer Doesn't Take a Holliday" campaign were filmed. Kathy also made plans to attend Monday's game against the Mets at Busch Stadium as part of an initiative to promote the early colon cancer screenings.

"I'm not the one in the family that is typically out there talking to reporters and being on the front line," Kathy said. "But this is for a cause that is obviously dear to my heart."

"When it affects your family, it becomes more meaningful to you," added Matt. "Awareness is the most important thing, because if you catch it early, you have a better chance of getting it out of there and having a normal life."

Kathy knows that she is one of the lucky ones. Her cancer was discovered early enough that once the tumor was removed, no chemotherapy or radiation was needed.

In order to ensure the cancer does not return, Kathy will be monitored for the next five years. She has blood drawn every three months. Twice a year, she will undergo a CAT scan. The first of those will come during her visit to St. Louis next week.

She certainly doesn't mind the excuse to travel back to St. Louis regularly, either. It gives her an opportunity to spend more time with Matt; his wife, Leslee; and their three young children, who she said were her "medicine" during her recovery last fall. The youngest, Gracyn, most enjoyed playing doctor to grandma.

Even now, the hugs are a little tighter, the moments cherished a little deeper, too. That's another side effect of cancer, you see. And it's one that Kathy is OK in knowing will never go away.

"When something like that happens, it really hammers home how truly blessed you are and how important family is," she said. "I've always loved those boys so much and they're the most important thing to me. I think they probably think I check in with them more than they'd like; I text Matt all the time. But this has just reiterated to me how special my family is."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Holliday