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#TGW: In The Pink

March 12, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Georgia Tech freshman Samantha Pierannunzi will never forget the one pitch she saw on Sunday afternoon at Mewborn Field.

It didn’t come from Yellow Jackets ace Kylie Kleinschmidt, teammate Kanani Cabrales or Notre Dame star Laura Winter. It didn’t come from a player at all.

Sam won’t forget that pitch, the ceremonial first pitch, because Jeannie Pierannunzi, her mom and a 13-year survivor of breast cancer, delivered it to her.

It was a poignant way to kick off Pink Day, Georgia Tech Softball’s annual day dedicated to breast cancer awareness.

Jeannie’s story touched everyone, players, coaches, and fans, as well as the entire Pierannunzi family, husband, Kenneth, Sam, and Jeannie and Kenneth’s two sons, Kevin and Michael, who were in attendance.

“That was so much fun!” she said. “I actually practiced with my husband for a few minutes. I was trying not to embarrass the family.”

As if!

“It’s just an inspiration,” said Georgia Tech head coach Shelly Hoerner of Jeannie and her victorious battle over the malady. “A 13-year survivor? Wow! You think about if that happened to you, could you be that strong? She’s 13-years survived. Hats off to her. She’s an inspiration.”

“It’s hugely important because everyone is affected by breast cancer — your mother, your aunt, your sister, a neighbor, your daughter,” said Jeannie. “It’s just really important for women of all ages to be aware and for everyone to kind of watch and know. So I think it’s a great thing.”

For Sam, who was five years old when her mom was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, Pink Day is another way of showing she hasn’t forgotten her mom’s battle and is doing her part to help others fighting a similar fight.

“It’s really cool to be a part of this just because my whole life my mom’s breast cancer has been a part of me and a part of our family,” she said. “It’s kind of scary to go through as a kid because you don’t understand it. Then you get older and you understand how lucky you are. It could have been completely different.

“Every day I have my mom is a special day,” she continued. “I realize that there are a lot people in the world that didn’t have the outcome that we had. I just think I’m really blessed to have her in my life, she’s a big part of my life and I love her. To recognize what she’s been through and to be able to recognize what she’s conquered is a really cool thing for me. I think she deserves all the recognition in the world.”

A routine check-up on Jeannie’s 40th birthday, took what should have been a day of celebration, and instead turned the entire family’s world upside-down.

“The ride home is very quiet and then, as the person that’s not sick, you automatically go into support mode, trying to be supportive and everything’s going to be fine,” said Kenneth. “For the first month or so you don’t really have very much information until you can go see an oncologist. There could be two, three, four weeks before you get any information. The one thing they tell you is `Stay away from the Internet’ because if you type in breast cancer, it’s awful.

“But once we saw the oncologist there was a plan put in place and reassurances and understanding what type of cancer,” he added. “The fact that it was caught early and that she was 40 years old, a younger woman can take chemotherapy and radiation and medication for years. Once you have that plan it makes it a lot easier to tolerate.”

Clarification especially helped the kids, who had seen a close family friend taken by brain cancer only months earlier.

“My understanding of cancer was probably a lot more scary than your average kid just because I had just been through it with my best friend’s dad,” said Sam. “So then to hear that my mom was diagnosed, that for me, as a kid, was my worst nightmare as a kid.”

Jeannie underwent four chemotherapy treatments, one every three weeks, then did 37 radiation treatments and followed up with medication called Tamoxifen for the next five years.

The family learned to adapt to the bouts of fatigue that accompanied the chemo and everyone pitched in, including the neighbors and friends. There even were times, especially following chemo, that the kids needed to keep their distance from their mom.

“We wouldn’t be able to be close to her because elementary school kids have so many germs,” Sam remembered. “So I would have to stay away just so we wouldn’t get her sick.”

But the family also rallied around their mom through the different stages of her recovery.

“I remember sometimes I would put on an apron and I would bring a tray and a pen and paper and I’d be like, `Is there anything I can get you?’ `What can I do for you?'” Sam said. “Just because even little things like that, just to be able to spend that kind of time with her was special to me.”

One special family moment came early on in chemo treatments, as Jeannie began to lose her hair.

“One day she walked in and decided she was going to shave her head,” Sam recalled. “I remember the night we took her out on the back porch and my brothers got the clippers out and then they got the scissors out and they cut my hair and it was a really cool family moment for all of us to be together for that.”

Sam contributed her hair that night and has contributed to Locks of Love. (http://www.locksoflove.org/faq.html) and Kevin’s and Michael’s baseball teams shaved their heads in a show of solidarity.

Even cooler was watching as the number of annual oncologist visits dwindled.

“I just remember her reaching these stepping stones, because, it’s all about not relapsing and going back in,” Sam said. “You don’t want to speak too soon before you’re really excited about it. So while it is cool to finally be told you don’t have to go in for treatment anymore, it’s really not until 10 years out that you’re considered cancer-free. So we would just kind of take milestones. Each time you realized how much she’s gone through and how far she’s come. It’s just a special thing to be a part of.”

“She would go every quarter to the oncologist and they’d say, `Everything looks great, your blood-counts are good. Your markers are good,'” Kenneth said. “Then you get to a certain point that you go twice a year and then you go once a year to the oncologist.”

The come the priceless words “You don’t have to come anymore.”

“It’s incredible,” said Jeannie. “You’re like, `Okay, I’ve done this. I’m through it and I can move on.` It’s just an incredible thing.”

Jeannie admitted that she had kind of lost count of how long she’d been cancer-free as she stood in the circle at The Mew. It was a little bit shocking to hear the public-address announcer tell the crowd that it was 13 years.

“It’s funny. I had to count it up because at first, you’re counting by the days and then the months and then, all of a sudden, it’s like, `Oh, wow! It’s been a long time!'” she said.

A long time, maybe, but she’s hardly taking her health for granted. She’s learned to appreciate things like going to her sons’ baseball games or daughter’s softball games even more.

“Life is short and people in your life are precious to you and you have to take advantage of the time you have with them and really enjoy life as you can,” she said. “So it definitely changed my entire perspective on life.”

“Every single day I wake up and I have her, I’m just so thankful,” said Sam.

Sunday wasn’t the end of their fight against breast cancer.

Mother and daughter will be participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, which takes place throughout the spring and summer, with the Georgia Tech leg happening on March 28, as well as the Susan G. Komen 3-Day®, which takes place in Atlanta Oct. 17-19.

“They are organizations we love because they have a really positive community and raise so much awareness,” Sam said. “Any way to support the cause is important.”

To further raise your awareness, visit the Susan G. Komen Foundation at http://ww5.komen.org/ and the American Cancer Society at http://www.cancer.org/index. For more information on the Relay for Life visit http://www.relayforlife.org/. For more information on the Susan G. Komen 3-Day visit (http://www.the3day.org/.

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