Wife of Lions coach shares cancer battle as a warning

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Plymouth — Amy Moloney was happy. She loved bartending at Cheli’s Chili Bar, serving Detroit sports fans and working with her best friends. She had her close-knit family nearby. Best of all, she was about to marry the man of her dreams, Kris Kocurek, a defensive coach for the Detroit Lions. They met when he sat at her Cheli’s table in 2011.

Amy Kocurek, left, and Lakeisha Carey, greet Roary the Detroit Lions’ mascot. Kocurek, whose husband Kris is a Lions coach, survived breast cancer.

But in the stands with Kris, watching the Pro Bowl in January 2015, she felt tired and numbness on her right side.

“I didn’t feel like myself. I almost knew something was wrong,” she recalled, seated at a picnic table inside her Plymouth home.

Lying in bed that night after the game, her hand grazed across her right breast. She felt a lump.

Rolling over, she nudged Kris, “I think something is not right.”

Amy was 36 years old. One in 8 women get breast cancer, but it’s uncommon for women in their 30s. Doctors don’t even recommend mammograms before age 40 since less than 5 percent of women with breast cancer are younger than 40.

Amy’s sharing her story during Breast Cancer Awareness Month because she wants it to be a warning for other women younger than 40 that they’re not invincible from breast cancer. Especially if they’re not getting mammograms, they need to do self-exams, she said.

“I was not aware of my body,” she admitted. “I probably would have caught it earlier if I would have paid more attention.”

Amy didn’t have a family history of breast cancer, and she never self-examined her breasts. She thought she had no reason to worry.

Kocurek sports her wig with her husband Kris after beating breast cancer.

The diagnosis

Amy happened to have an appointment scheduled that Monday with her gynecologist. She told him she hadn’t been feeling well recently and thought she felt a lump. He wasted no time.

“He felt my breast, and right when he felt it, I knew. I knew by the look on his face. He started to tear up,” Amy said.

Her fear was confirmed after a mammogram. Her parents and Kris stood by her side as a radiologist relayed the news.

“You have breast cancer,” Amy said he told her. “If you were my sister or my mom, I wouldn’t let you leave the office without a biopsy, so I’m going to do it today.”

The next day, her parents, Kris and younger brother Matt met at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. It felt like the news couldn’t get worse, but it did.

The biopsy from Amy’s 5-centimeter tumor revealed she had stage 3 HER2-positive breast cancer, and it had spread to her armpit lymph nodes.

“It is quite serious, and the HER2-positive breast cancers are typically more aggressive than the ones that are HER2-negative,” said Dr. Christopher Reynolds, Amy’s oncologist at St. Joseph Mercy, explaining only 20 percent of breast cancers are HER2-positive.

“This kind of cancer can spread to the bones, liver and even the brain, and it would have continued to metastasize. Once it goes beyond lymph nodes, then you’re looking at stage 4 breast cancer, which is not considered curable.”

At that point, the doctors didn’t know if it had spread further. They performed a bone scan, CAT scan, MRI, blood work and jumble of tests.

Then, the results came back: stage 3 cancer that did not get to the bones or liver.

Getting through dark days

Throughout her journey, Amy Kocurek shared what she was going through on Facebook.

Amy was diagnosed on Feb. 5, 2015. She was supposed to get married in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains on March 26 of that year. Chemotherapy needed to start as soon as possible, which meant Amy would lose her hair. Kris suggested postponing the wedding.

“We could have went ahead and got married with her going through chemotherapy, but I know that’s not the day she wanted,” Kris said. “She didn’t want to remember her wedding day being sick.”

Kris, 38, joined the Lions as an assistant defensive line coach in 2009 and was promoted the next year.

Kris’ aunt had died from breast cancer, and he was not about to let his fiancee face the same fate. So, he did the one thing he does best: He made a game plan, as Amy faced six months of heavy chemotherapy.

“Football is an up-and-down business, highs and lows, peaks and valleys, and throughout the course of the season, even the off-season, you have to grind through things, put things in perspective and attack issues. Kris said in a call from the Lions’ Allen Park practice facility during a lunch break. “It’s somewhat similar to the situation we were in.”

Even when a breast cancer patient is cured, there’s always a chance the cancer could return. If patients can make it five years without a recurrence, Reynolds said, the odds are good they’re in the clear. Knowing that, Amy sunk into a deep depression.

“All I could think about was, ‘It’s going to come back, and it’s going to ruin the rest of my life. I know it’s going to come back.’ I couldn’t get that out of my head,” she said.

‘A perfect response’

In July 2015 — six months after diagnosis — Amy sat at home next to her best friend, Kelli. She was sore, scarred and scared. She was waiting for the final pathology report to find out if her double mastectomy was successful. The phone rang. It was her surgeon, Dr. Jennifer Kulick.

“You got a perfect response to the surgery,” Amy remembers Kulick telling her. “We got all the cancer.”

Amy was in disbelief and hugged her best friend. Kris had just got home and heard the news.

“That was probably the most relief I may have ever had in my life,” he said. “There were some times that were really, really tough, and it’s made her stronger, it’s made myself stronger, it’s made our family stronger having to go through something like what we went through.”

Though pronounced cancer-free, the journey still wasn’t over. Amy had six weeks of radiation, five days a week, to ensure no cancerous cell was missed.

Amy got reconstructive surgery on her breasts. One thing she couldn’t get: preserved eggs. Amy wanted a family eventually, but freezing her eggs would have delayed chemotherapy a month.

They got a Shih Tzu Bichon, Charlie, who became their child instead.

“I treat him like a baby,” Amy laughed.

Kocurek, left, Julie Quinn, and Ophelia Henry swap stories during a breast cancer event at the Western Wayne Family Health Center in Inkster this week.

Winning the battle

On June 23, 2016, Amy and Kris finally made it to the Smoky Mountains, where they got married surrounded by family members — Amy’s other “coaches.”

“I can’t take credit for being the sole coach in this whole deal,” Kris said.

This February will mark the third anniversary of Amy’s cancer. She now works part-time as a Michigan Head and Spine Institute medical clerk, a position less strenuous than bartending. She’s involved in breast cancer survivor groups and has spoken at cancer awareness events with the Detroit Lions.

This month, she and defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah took 30 survivors on a spa day. Ziggy was one of the defensive linemen there for Amy during her darkest days.

“They were very supportive and loving, and they still are,” Amy said. “They’re big defensive linemen, but they’re sweet, soft guys.”

Kris, too, is grateful for their support as well as Coach Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

“They knew what I was going through and what I was having to deal with at home besides the daily grind of an NFL football season, so they helped me as much as I helped her,” Kris said.

Early detection is key, Amy stressed.

“I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through,” she said. “It was terrible, but I’m here, and I’m alive, and I’m a survivor, and I want people to know they can be, too.”


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Twitter: @steph_steinberg