Staff Q&A/Kerry Carr

Kerry Carr, head coach, Penn women's volleyballPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

Kerry Carr tends to avoid scheduling anything not volleyball-related during volleyball season.

She is a coach, after all. And once the season begins, she says, her focus is placed almost entirely on her team. It’s been that way ever since Carr took over as Penn’s women’s volleyball coach in 1998.

This past year, though, Carr’s normal autumn routine was shattered because of an appointment she did make during the season. The appointment was a mammogram—a mammogram that confirmed Carr had breast cancer. Though doctors caught the cancer early, it had spread enough that it required immediate treatment. For Carr, that meant not only a 14-hour surgery—but also leaving her team.

“The first thing I asked the doctor [when I found out I had cancer] was, ‘Can surgery wait until after the season?’” says Carr, a mother of two. “And my husband kicked me under the table. He was like, ‘Um, what about us?’ I think that put into perspective what’s really important.”

Carr underwent a bilateral mastectomy in October, leaving her team in the hands of assistant coach Ryan Goodwin, who led the team to a third-place Ivy League finish. Just a couple months later, Carr was back at work—cancer free, feeling strong, and grateful, she says, for the great medical care she received at Penn, the support she got from her family, team and friends, and her fresh new outlook on life.

Q. I understand that you were reminded to make your mammogram appointment this fall, in part, by the fact that your team was to participate in the national Dig Pink breast cancer awareness event. Had you been getting regular checkups previously?
A.
I have been checked fairly regularly since I was 35. I breast-fed both of my children and at one point I had found a lump that was totally unrelated to the cancer that I had this fall. But ever since then I’ve had regular mammograms, even though I’m younger than 40, because if you’re 35 and have had other problems they put you on a higher-risk list. I was due for another checkup in the summer. But at some point I realized I hadn’t done it. It takes two months to get an appointment and when I finally put it on the schedule, It just so happened that it was during my season—generally I try to avoid scheduling anything during the season. But when I got checked they caught what turned out to be a high-growth cancer, very early.

Q. And what was your reaction?
A.
Well, denial of course. You have to understand, by that point I was in ‘season mode.’ As a coach, and though I have a family and two young kids and a husband, I hate to say this, but during the season some stuff gets put on a back burner as far as my priorities every day. I am worried about where the team is going, where they’re sleeping, what they’re eating, what the game plan is, our scouting reports.

Q. So when you finally were able to accept it, where did you go from there?
A.
The first I wanted to know was, ‘What do I do next?’ For me, the unknown was scarier than knowing. And I was so lucky to have a group of doctors that, as soon as they knew there was something wrong, they immediately scheduled me for a biopsy. In the medical community, I had never experienced that. I mean, it takes two months to get an appointment—so how could they do this the next day and then get the results within two days? Also, for me, to have volleyball distracting me from the waiting was really therapeutic as far as not having to think about it all the time.

Q. You were presented with a variety of different treatment options. How did you go about making your choice?
A.
To me it was clear-cut from the beginning. I wanted the cancer out and I wanted the things removed. I think why it’s such a personal choice is because it’s your body and the breasts are such a symbol of womanhood and stuff like that. But I was like, ‘Just get it out. I don’t need them anymore [laughs].’ Then I learned that reconstruction is tailored to your lifestyle. I’m not someone who ever considered implants, but then they said you could reconstruct from your own tissue—that it would be the same, look the same. And I was like, ‘That’s what I want. I want to be normal. I want to look normal, and go to the gym, and work out and not be reminded of it every day.’ But as for the decision, to me it was really easy. At first you ask a lot of people. You ask your doctors, your husband, people on the Internet. But in the end it’s about how you feel about your body and what’s important to you. When I made the decision to do the full mastectomy, the doctors were like, ‘That’s exactly what I would have wanted my daughter to do.’ They wanted me to do the most aggressive thing, but they also know that’s not the physically right thing for all people.

Q. How did your family, and your team, handle this entire situation?
A.
My husband is a rock and he just wanted to be strong for me. But it was hard on him, as I found out later. My kids are too young to really understand. My five-year-old, we told him Mommy was going to be gone for a few days, and why she was going to be gone. He was fine. He just wanted to know how to make me feel better. My daughter is only three, so she had no idea. She only wanted to know if she could have ice cream for dinner.
As for the kids on the team, I told them in doses. I told them as soon as I found out … when I thought I was just having a little lumpectomy and maybe some radiation before practice for 10 minutes a day. So they knew I had it, and it was a scary thing, but we thought it was something small and it was not going to affect them. But some of them still took it hard. They started crying. Because it’s scary. I just told them it’s scary because they’ve heard it’s scary, but that we had a plan for this. So for a while they worried but they didn’t ask me about it. But when I told them I had to leave, it was like a second shock. They had a ton of questions. I mean, they’re girls. And I wanted to tell them everything. I wanted them to ask me everything. And they did.

Q. So when you left, were you totally gone from the team? Were you ‘consulting’ from home?
A.
Well, of course, I thought I should have been. And I did for a while. Ryan and I texted all the time before matches, but it was more just to give him some confidence. I didn’t give him any answers. ... He was trying to get confidence, and after a couple of matches of talking before and after, we didn’t talk that much. It was important that he coach his own way and that I didn’t come in and do something different when they were doing something well. It was hard. It was a fine line. And I envisioned something different—maybe texting him during the game. But then surgery came and I was under 14 hours. I was intubated. I was in the ICU for three days and the hospital for five days. I was out of it, really. I knew who won the World Series, and what game it was, and I knew what was happening, but I had no energy and was in tremendous amounts of pain. I was not prepared for something totally knocking me out like that.

Q. When you were finally healthy enough to get up and around, you watched your first game in person from the stands. What was that like?
A.
It was odd. The first game back was Alumni Weekend, and I had a bunch of former players sitting next to me, watching me and thinking, ‘Wow, what is coach going to do?’ But to me, it was almost like watching a game film. And when I got emotional, I just yelled at the refs [laughs]. That’s what I do on the bench. But I could actually do that in the stands, because I was just being a fan. In a way it was kind of like going to a friend’s volleyball game, but knowing every single player on the team and knowing every move they were going to make before they make it. And I must say, it was as hard to watch them win as it was to watch them lose. It was hard to watch them win because I wasn’t with them. It was hard to watch them lose because that’s my team. I don’t want to see them lose. But it really was equally hard to see them win. I was happy for them. But I wasn’t happy for me. Because I wasn’t happy.

Q. I have to ask: Are you looking at life any differently now? Are you living life differently?
A.
Every time we get into the spring, we look back at what happened in the fall and the things that impacted us and we look for new ways to do things. I think I’m going through that now and not only with our volleyball techniques and players, but in my life. One of the main things I’m doing is that I really am working out every day. I value that so much now because I didn’t have it for so long. I don’t know if this is a phase and it will wear off, but that’s one thing that has changed. In the past it seemed like there was never enough time to work out. But now, well, there is. If I’m late to work, that’s the way it’s going to be. If I have to get up at 5 a.m. to work out before the kids go to school, that’s what I have to do. ... It does impact your life. I think it makes you have more time for yourself.

Q. Does it feel like this whole thing is ‘over’ now?
A.
No. At times, I’ll be like, ‘That was so weird. That was a dream—a nightmare that happened to me. Thank God it’s over.’ But it’s not over. I’ll sit there and think, ‘Wait, do I feel something?’ There’s always that shadow of, ‘It might come back.’ There’s a 20 percent chance of recurrence. So there are times when I feel like my ride is not over with. And yet I can’t live my life looking over my shoulder. I just can’t do it that way. I don’t think there’s closure for anybody with cancer, at least not the people I’ve talked to who have had it. But I can say today that I’m cancer free, and not everybody can say that. I’ll tell people sometimes that I feel extremely lucky. And they’ll ask me, ‘Lucky? Are you crazy?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, I feel lucky. I mean, who gets cancer and then gets over it six weeks later?’

Originally published Jan. 22, 2009

Originally published on January 22, 2009