Photography by Brandi Stage Portraiture | Hair and Makeup by HD Hair and Makeup
For her entire adult life, Kathy Pizzetta Springer was a “hot-rollers-and-hairspray” kind of girl.
Photos taken as recently as two years ago show the vivacious blonde, who is CEO of the United Way of South Mississippi, wearing a gravity-defying bouffant.
“I loved to spray and tease my hair, and I colored my hair religiously …,” Springer recalls. “My mother, God rest her soul, always had my hair cut in a ‘pixie’ when I was a young girl, and I swore I would never have short hair. So yes, my hair was a big part of my outward identity.”
Today, Springer’s silvery, cropped locks are the only outward sign of the battle she’s waged for over a year. Last April, a routine mammogram revealed a 5.5-centimeter tumor, and suddenly, Springer found herself in the fight of her life.
‘IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME THAT I WOULD HAVE BREAST CANCER’
Having once worked at Gulf Coast Community Hospital and later at Biloxi Regional Medical Center (now Merit Biloxi), Springer never missed her annual screening. When she went for this particular test, she had no reason to think anything was amiss.
“The day I was to go for my mammogram was a very busy and hectic day, and I seriously thought about canceling – which I typically did at least once every time I went for one,” she says. “It just never occurred to me that I would have breast cancer.”
A second mammogram and a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.
“I honestly didn’t know what to do; I just kept thinking, ‘Everything will be OK,’ or, ‘What if everything’s not OK?’ she says. “I did not miss a day of school in my life, or a day of work due to illness, except when (my son) Richard was born.”
Springer’s husband, Rick, was shocked by the news, but supportive — reassuring his wife that they would get through the ordeal together. They visited Ole Miss, where Richard was a month away from graduation, to tell him in person.
“He was surprised to say the least, but took the news as well as he could,” Springer says. “I knew that how I dealt with it would be how he and Rick would deal with it.”
Springer also contacted her friend, oncology specialist Dr. Allison Wall, who saw her the same day and went on to manage her cancer treatment.
“On my way to Dr. Wall’s, I thought that I’d better stop at Shoe Station and buy a new pair of shoes,” Springer recalls. “Why? I don’t know, but that’s what I did. I guess that was my coping mechanism at that moment. I had so many feelings, but being scared was not one of them.”
Dr. Wall recalls meeting Springer in a working moms’ group, where the members joked that they never wanted to be her patient. When Springer needed her services, Wall says, she faced a devastating diagnosis with optimism, grit and humor.
“I barely saw her shed a tear,” Wall adds. “She was so positive.”
The doctor often tells her patients that treatment puts them in a cocoon, from which they will emerge a new, better and even more beautiful creature. Springer exemplifies these words, according to her friend — coming through her fight more determined than ever.
“She’s one of those people who is thankful and grateful,” Wall says. “She’s going to move forward to whatever comes next, and she’s done it all with grace and style.”
Above all, Springer did not want to become an object of pity. After making her sister and best friend promise that they would get their mammograms as soon as possible, she asked them not to post anything on social media about her condition.
“If people think you’re sick, they think you can’t do your job to the best of your ability, or you can’t run your household, or you can’t be the mother, or the wife,” she says. “I was (intent) on being all of those things, just like always.”
When Springer’s longtime pal Nanette Burke thinks of her friend, several adjectives come to mind — among them hard-working, courageous, loving, compassionate, persistent, nurturing, funny, fun-loving, meticulous, talented, dependable, humble and spiritual. Burke especially admires Springer’s relationship with God, which allowed her friend to approach breast cancer with resolve and fortitude.
“Kathy gives her all,” Burke says, “whether it be in her family life, her professional life, her community and civic life and her Catholic faith life.”
‘HOPE IS BEAUTIFUL’
Determined not to disrupt United Way, Springer only missed about five days of work after her mastectomy and continued to work through her treatment, which included eight rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation. After her chemo treatments on Thursday mornings, she’d stop at Sonic for a celebratory order of tots before heading into the office. She tolerated chemo surprisingly well; radiation proved harder.
The silver lining of losing her mane, she says, was reclaiming 30 minutes of time in her daily routine.
“It takes a lot to walk out the door each morning with no hair, no eyelashes and no eyebrows,” she says. “I got quite good at drawing on eyebrows!”
At one time, appearances mattered greatly to Springer, as they do to most young women — who often base their self-image on hairstyles, weight, clothes, etc. As a cancer survivor, she has realized beauty has little to do with looks and much to do with character.
“I speak to people every day who are struggling to make ends meet, to do the best for their children or grandchildren, or who have struggles that are unimaginable,” she says. “They are hungry, overcoming some adversity, but they get up and go on every day. Hope is beautiful.”
‘I HAVE A LOT OF WORK TO DO’
Today, Springer remains cancer free but will be monitored closely for years to come. She often is asked when she will retire, which is not in her plans anytime soon.
“I have a lot of work to do!” Springer says. “My main goal is to live as healthy a life as I can.”
Never one to indulge in self-pity, she reserves her concern for those she deems more deserving. Compared to what some others are facing, she insists, her struggles are trivial.
“I made a lot of friends in chemo and radiation; it’s a sorority I did not rush for,” she says. “But to be in a group of remarkable, brave women is something I didn’t expect.”
Whatever the future holds for Springer, she’s determined to stay grateful and humble. She believes everyone has unique gifts, and she’s determined to use hers to benefit her family, her community and the world at large.
‘I know there’s another purpose for me; I know it more now than I have ever known it,” Springer says. “I don’t know what it is, but I will know it when I see it.”
Ladies, get your mammogram!
If Springer had a megaphone to convey one message, it would be this: “Do not even be five minutes late for your mammogram. What wasn’t there a year ago was there in a big way for me.”
Here are some breast cancer facts that every woman should know:
- Women in America have a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Early detection can catch the disease while chances of a good outcome are highest.
- Most breast cancers are diagnosed after age 40. The American Cancer society recommends that women ages 40 to 44 have the choice to start annual mammograms, and women ages 45-54 should be screened every year.
- Most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer don’t have a significant family history. However, having a family history does elevate breast cancer risk. Having your first period before age 12 or starting menopause after age 55 also elevates your risk.
To learn more, visit www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer.html