My Crucial Catch: How the NFL's cancer awareness campaign helped save my life

The NFL's annual Crucial Catch campaign has personal meaning to Michelle McKenna, chief information officer for the NFL, who shares the story of how a simple reminder had a profound impact.

When I think back to the week my life was saved three years ago, I can still remember the beautiful fall weather. 

I had just returned to New York from London, where I'd watched the Seahawks-Raiders game alongside my daughter, Maggie, who was studying abroad, and I was in high spirits. I was rushing into the office, facing my regular set of meetings and a full calendar, feeling way behind on emails. And there, sitting on my keyboard, was a new lanyard promoting the NFL's Crucial Catch campaign.  

I always looked forward to this campaign every year. As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, seeing so many players join the fight against cancer touched me. And I certainly knew the importance of mammograms. But when my assistant, Petrina, inquired about when I last had a mammogram, I couldn't remember. Running to a meeting, I put on the lanyard and asked her to schedule one -- within the next few weeks, if possible. Soon, it was set, for Friday, Oct. 18, 2018.

After arriving alone that day at The Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai in New York City for an early morning mammogram (in time to get back to the office afterward!), I posted on social media about the importance of getting mammograms and the NFL's Crucial Catch campaign. I was thinking about this as a chance to get checked and shout out survivors -- I was not thinking about myself being at risk. We had determined earlier that neither my mom nor myself had the BRCA gene mutations linked to increased chances of cancer, and we assumed her cancer was an anomaly. So as I waited to hear my name, I sat and scrolled social media, checked my emails, and made a few calls.

Michelle McKenna (left) and her daughter, Maggie, attend the Seahawks-Raiders game in London in 2018. (Courtesy of Michelle McKenna)
Michelle McKenna (left) and her daughter, Maggie, attend the Seahawks-Raiders game in London in 2018. (Courtesy of Michelle McKenna)

The first hint that something was wrong came in the mammogram room, when I noticed the screening was running longer than normal.

The second hint: The technician was adjusting and readjusting, apologizing for pulling so hard. After she stepped out a few times and had someone else join her, I began to ask questions. Were they seeing something? Were they worried? They continued to assure me they just wanted to be very thorough.

By then, it was nearing noon, and I had been in a mammogram for two hours. This was unusual. I was asked to change and return to the waiting room, which also had never happened before. Now I was worried. But I didn't want to worry anyone else, so I sat and waited -- although this time, I didn't busy myself scrolling social media. Instead, I looked around me at all the women who were there for treatments, some sicker than others, and the gravity of the situation hit me.

Left and right: McKenna poses for photos before a mammogram on Oct. 18, 2018, for sharing on social media. (Courtesy of Michelle McKenna)
Left and right: McKenna poses for photos before a mammogram on Oct. 18, 2018, for sharing on social media. (Courtesy of Michelle McKenna)

I next found myself in an office with a kind doctor who told me I needed to get a biopsy as soon as possible. And she wasn't kidding -- when I asked her when we should schedule, she suggested that same afternoon, explaining that minimizing delays in biopsies can significantly boost survival rates. Every day that a woman waits for a biopsy counts; tumors grow, lives get busy, and sometimes, even the best-intentioned people don't get back for their biopsy for many weeks, if at all. Thus, her office had made a practice of having radiologists ready to perform biopsies on the same day, when cases warranted it, to keep patients from walking out the door without taking that pivotal step.

Cold and afraid, I watched the radiologist put markers in my body and focus over and over on an area of the screen that looked like a spider web with uneven lines. And I was told that day, sitting alone in the doctor's office, that I had cancer.

While it would take more time to pinpoint the exact type, from the look of the tumor, they knew it was fast-growing, and that it was important to act quickly. In November, I had a double mastectomy, with a reconstruction in May of 2019. I had dodged a very serious bullet. Surrounded by the love of my NFL family, who helped me prepare and take care of things at work and home, I began my recovery.

I wanted to share my story this year, on the third anniversary of that mammogram, to illustrate the importance of the NFL's Crucial Catch campaign with the American Cancer Society. It's a reminder in our busy lives to stop for a minute and think about our own health. There are few cures for cancer better than early detection and treatment. The first step could be a lifesaving one, as it was for me. It is also critically important to do the follow-up diagnostics, because, as I learned so vividly, with cancer, every day matters.

Cancer had previously touched my family -- and I still didn't think it would happen to me. I still got too busy to stay on top of my screenings. I spent so much time making sure everyone else was OK that I had not taken care of my own health. 

Three years ago, I made my own crucial catch. I am thankful for the campaign, and to my assistant, Petrina, for spurring me to take the action that saved my life. I also remember, during the long journey of recovery, the kindness of our organization at the NFL, from our HR team, to the colleagues and club executives who reached out, to, of course, the IT team, which started a meal train that helped my mom and myself as I healed. I never felt alone again. 

Please let this year's Crucial Catch campaign be a time when, in addition to spreading the word to others, you make sure to listen -- for yourself.

For more information on the NFL's Crucial Catch campaign with the American Cancer Society, please visit www.nfl.com/crucialcatch.

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