Zinsser finds strength through love of Pirates

Bucs' Honorary Bat Girl battling breast cancer

May 22nd, 2016
Kirsten Zinsser was recognized as the Pirates' Honorary Bat Girl on Sunday at PNC Park. (Pittsburgh Pirates)Pittsburgh Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- Kirsten Zinsser loves converting those around her into Pittsburgh fans. But the past year, that effort has taken a backseat as she battled invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer.

The winner of the Pirates' annual Honorary Bat Girl contest, which recognizes a fan committed to fighting back against breast cancer, grew up in Gibsonia, Pa., and attended Penn State. Four years ago, Zinsser moved to Arlington, Va., to teach first grade and special education.

In the middle of Washington Nationals territory, Zinsser hangs the Terrible Towel in her classroom and, during their Writer's Workshop sessions, reads her students stories she writes about Steelers and Pirates games. One day, her doctor called her in the middle of class. As she moved to the back corner of her classroom to take the call, he informed her of cancerous cells found during a biopsy.

"So then the doctor said, 'Unfortunately, the biopsy came back and it's cancerous.' And I was bawling and all the kids were like, 'Why is Ms. Zinsser crying? Why are there tears coming from her eyes?' And some of them were crying. And it was a mess."

Zinsser had a double mastectomy on Dec. 8, started chemotherapy on Jan. 15 and finished chemo on April 22. She will begin taking another drug, which she will be on for the next 10 years, to decrease the chance of the cancer returning. And she will undergo reconstructive surgery in August.

Standing in front of the Pirates' dugout at PNC Park on Sunday, Zinsser was happy to be home -- with her boyfriend of two years and more than 60 relatives.

"I'm done with the hardest part," Zinsser said, smiling.

And she gets to make a Pirates fan out of her boyfriend, Jay Campbell -- a Philadelphia native and Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and Sixers supporter. He sported a Bucs shirt, at least for the day. Campbell admits the pair doesn't talk about hockey, but none of that really mattered Sunday.

"It's awesome," Campbell said. "I'm very glad to see her have this experience, because it's been a fight and a struggle the last six months. So I'm just glad she gets to enjoy something."

Joe Everling, the parent of one of Zinsser's students, nominated her for the contest. She was honored at PNC Park before the Pirates' game against the Rockies. Zinsser estimates about two of her students per year transition into Pirates fans, and Everling's son is no exception.

"His son was running around saying 'Go Pirates! Go Pirates!' in the hotel this morning," Zinsser said.

After her battle with cancer, Zinsser returned to the stadium she did a project on as a fourth grader when it was under construction in 2001. She spent many childhood nights watching Pirates games with her grandfather, close to the first-base line, hoping to catch a foul ball. This visit, she was surrounded by family and friends, whether they are original Pirates fans or converts, to support her in her fight against cancer.

"As bad as everything is that you're going through, the people that come and support you, it's very eye-opening," Zinsser said.