Like many collegiate volleyball programs across the nation, Wake Forest will host a “Dig for the Cure” match during the month of October. But for the Demon Deacons, this year’s breast cancer awareness and fundraising event will be a little different. 

This year’s fight against the disease became personal after Wake Forest head coach Heather Kahl Holmes was diagnosed with breast cancer in May.

Last October, Holmes gave birth to her first child, Landon, two months early – a challenging time as her water broke early causing the premature birth. She was hospitalized for 12 days and her son was in the Newborn ICU for 21 days, but in the end, mother and child came home healthy. 

Holmes did not return to work full-time until January 16, and on the same day, she turned in her breast pump. 

‘When things get tough, just wrap these words and signatures around yourself because you’re not alone.
-- Tony da Luz

“About a month later, I had what they call a let-down effect and a little bit of lactation came out,” Holmes said. “I went to feel the left breast. I had read about the calcification of milk ducts or thought it was a gland. It didn’t feel like a tumor that would be associated with cancer because I thought that would feel like a marble.”

The busy new mom and head coach forgot about the lump until a few months later, and she found it was still there. She did some research about breast cancer, and finally talked to her husband Michael about her concerns. When she Googled the terms lump and milk duct, a checklist appeared of six different things you should look for if you have breast cancer. 

“I checked all six of the things on the list,” Holmes said.

Her husband urged her to go to the doctor, but it still took a few weeks to make the appointment. On May 8, she went to her doctor who felt the lump, and also thought it might be a gland, but scheduled the 38-year-old Holmes for a mammogram and ultrasound anyway. 

Three days later, she underwent the tests, and the radiologist referred her for a biopsy. When Holmes pressed him about the problem, he warned her she was going to need a breast surgeon, basically telling her she had cancer before the official diagnosis of the biopsy.

“It gave me a window of opportunity to start reaching out and getting more information and knowledge to get a handle on it before I got the official news,” Holmes said.

When she did get the news on May 16, Holmes was told she had invasive ductal carcinoma.

Holmes’ skills as a coach definitely helped her deal with the cancer and form a plan of attack against the disease.

“Once I got my team [of doctors and support] together, I was able to start my game plan,” Holmes said. “I think for me as a coach and a former player, that’s all I needed. I wanted to be on track, I wanted my team in place, I wanted our preparation ready, I needed to do my research … and since then, I have been in my battle mode.”

After meeting with the doctors, surgery for a double mastectomy was scheduled for July 5. Originally, a full reconstruction was also in the plans, but when the pathology report revealed the cancer – classified as Stage 2B -- had spread to one of her 21 lymph nodes, that plan was set aside. Currently, she is undergoing chemotherapy, and has just one treatment remaining on Oct. 29. 

Incredibly, she has not missed a practice, and has attended every one of the team’s matches except the two trips that involved airplane flights. Being with her team is one way of escaping the realities of cancer for a small time each day.

“When I’m around them, and in the gym, I don’t remember I have cancer,” Holmes said. “I don’t think about it.”

Holmes is incredibly proud of how her players and staff have dealt with this crisis. 

“For the girls to step up – despite the things that are going on – is amazing,” Holmes said. “As an athlete, you want to keep personal problems out of the gym, but I can’t do that and it is in their face constantly. It’s a visual now. I don’t have hair, I don’t have breasts.

MAKE A DONATION

The NC Triad Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure® is dedicated to combating breast cancer at every front. Up to 75 percent of the Affiliate’s net income goes toward funding grants to local hospitals and community organizations that provide breast health education and breast cancer screening and treatment programs for medically underserved women. The remaining net income (a minimum of 25 percent) supports the national Komen Grants Program, which funds groundbreaking breast cancer research, meritorious awards and educational and scientific programs around the world.

For those who cannot attend the match, donations can be made here. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3 at 7 p.m. ET.

“I think for females it is such an emotional ride because they think it could happen to them or someone in the their family, or it has. There’s a connection.”

Holmes also commends her husband, family, and Wake Forest athletic staff for the huge outpouring of support.

WFU women’s soccer coach Tony da Luz organized a department-wide show of support for Holmes when the Demon Deacons hosted Furman on Sept. 25. Seven of the department’s teams attended the match wearing all pink – more than 300 student-athletes and coaches – and da Luz presented Holmes with a quilt made of pink bandanas that everyone signed and wrote messages on. The event was a total surprise.

“When [da Luz] presented it to her he said, ‘When things get tough, just wrap these words and signatures around yourself because you’re not alone,’” WFU head field hockey coach Jennifer Averill said. 

Averill, whose program lost former player Maria Whitehead to cancer five years ago, shaved her head in support of Holmes, since she has been undergoing chemotherapy.

“The best thing to do was to just rally around her and let her try to keep things as normal as possible,” Averill said. “I shaved my head because I know for a female how difficult it would be to lose your hair – our hair is part of our beauty.”

Holmes’ coaching colleagues have also shown support by sending her pink jerseys, and sending numerous texts and emails. A few coaches, who are also in their 30s, have written Holmes that her situation inspired them to get mammograms.

“If I can help just two or three people because of this, then maybe it will be worth it,” Holmes said.

The Demon Deacons will hold their seventh annual Dig for a Cure match on Oct. 26 against NC State. The program has raised more than $55,000 for a local chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation in the previous six years. Donations will be gathered at the entrance, plus fans can pledge money for each dig earned by a Wake Forest player. The first 1,000 fans will receive black and pink pom-poms.

“It has always been something important to me being a female and coaching young females,” Holmes said. “It makes it more personal with the team and me, but it has always been important. It doesn’t make it bigger this year, because I have it.”