The goal in sports is to walk off the field or the court victorious. But sometimes, the outcome is far less important than the reason to play.
Such was the case Sept. 25 at Copello Field in Angels Camp. At the end of an all-day, 12-team co-ed softball tournament, it was Cory’s Crew who outlasted 11 other squads. And while the members of Cory’s crew were thrilled to be the winners of the tournament, the real winners were those who didn’t swing a bat or throw a pitch.
Saturday’s tournament was a fundraiser for the Calaveras County Cancer Support Group. The money raised not only went to the support group, but also to three young women who are currently in the middle of a treacherous battle with cancer.
Kat Zazueta, 29, Cory Severud, 27, and Quincy Camper, 19, have all been diagnosed with cancer and are the beneficiaries of a portion of the funds raised.
Both Zazueta and Severud were able to attend the event, but Camper was not. Camper recently had some side effects from her cancer treatment and is currently in the hospital.
When asked about what it means to her to know there were people out there raising funds to help with her recovery process, Camper said, “I never would’ve expected this much support from the community, including people I don’t even know. It’s one of the things that keeps me fighting. Also, being so young and having so much more life to live keeps me fighting.”
The Calaveras County Cancer Support Group’s annual co-ed softball tournament is nearing two decades of play. However, the games were put on hold in 2020 because of Covid, which made it even that much more important to Michael Ziehlke that another year doesn’t pass without the tournament taking place.
“It was really important to have this event this year, but you have to keep in mind that this community doesn’t forget,” said Ziehlke, who helped organize the event. “They were bugging me last year to do it, but we couldn’t find insurance. They wanted to do it with or without Covid. It is important to keep this going and to keep it in the limelight and make sure that people don’t forget about it, because cancer doesn’t forget.”
Ziehlke knows first-hand how important the tournament is. He watched his daughter Breanna have three different bouts with cancer at ages 2, 10 and 12. Ziehlke can attest to how much community support can help in many different ways and he hopes the actions from Saturday will not only help Zazueta, Severud and Camper, but also others who the support group can reach.
“The community has always stepped up to the plate,” Ziehlke said. “It doesn’t surprise me, but I’m still very thankful. We’ve made as little as $15,000 and as much as $25,000 in one day. We are hoping for $20,000. If we fall a little short, we fall a little short.”
What makes the trio of Zazueta, Severud and Camper so unique is that all three are currently battling leukemia.
“We wanted to draw attention to the leukemia fight in this county,” Ziehlke said. “It seemed weird that all three girls are all three from Calaveras County and all three have leukemia.”
It was a Friday just like many that came before it, and Zazueta was working at her job in human resources for Sierra Pacific Industries. But on that one specific Friday in April, Zazueta, who was a 2010 Bret Harte High School graduate and now lives in Red Bluff with her husband, Lance, didn’t feel well.
She spent the weekend on the couch and didn’t have the energy to do much of anything. At the start of her next work week, Zazueta went to see her doctor, thinking that perhaps she had contracted COVID-19 or had some other flu. Blood was drawn and while she waited for the results, her symptoms began to worsen. At the behest of her mother, Zazueta went to the emergency room in hopes to get faster results.
Within an hour of arriving to the emergency room, Zazueta was told the devastating news that she had leukemia and was then flown to UCSF to begin treatments.
“I told them they were wrong, because I didn’t believe them,” Zazueta said. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I just cried. Because of Covid and the hospital restrictions, I went to the hospital by myself, and my husband was on standby. I called my husband and he got there as soon as he could, and we sat in the emergency room together and waited for them to arrange what’s next.”
For the next 38 days, Zazueta became a resident of UCSF. When she was finally able to return home, she then had to quarantine, as she didn’t have much of an immune system. Zazueta’s road to recovery started with a four-week round of chemotherapy, followed by a few weeks off, and then five week’s worth of infusions, which she recently completed.
Zazueta hopes to return to work in a few more weeks and will be taking oral medicine for the next two years. And like most who battle cancer, Zazueta has learned a lot about herself and how she lives her life.
“I learned to let go,” Zazueta said. “I know it sounds weird, but I kept such tight control on everything, and now I have learned to let go and let people help. It’s a really hard thing to let go of your routines and what you do and to let people in to help you. I’ve been pretty fortunate that since April, I haven’t had a ton of issues, aside from my hospital stay and chemo and getting on track.”
On Saturday, it was rare to see Zazueta without a smile. While her team, Team Kat, did not win the tournament, Zazueta was grateful for everyone who showed up and knows that, although her battle isn’t over, she won’t ever be alone.
“I’m just fortunate that I am where I am today and that I’ve got so much support behind me,” Zazueta said. “I grew up here, and my parents and grandparents both grew up here, and all my family history is here, so to have the community back me is unbelievable. It just really shows how great this area is and how lucky we are to have it.”
Like Zazueta, Severud is also a Bret Harte graduate (2012) who was overwhelmed by the support from the community Saturday afternoon.
“It’s kind of unreal,” Zazueta said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen, and then everyone comes together to help you, and you realize how wonderful the community is.”
Severud grew up in Murphys and now lives in Copperopolis with her two daughters, Audrey, 7, and Paige, 5. Like most cancer battlers, it all started with not feeling well one day, which is what happened to Severud.
“I was sick, but I just thought it was a cold that my daughter gave me,” Severud said. “And then I couldn’t get out of bed, and I knew that I had to do something.”
On Sept. 28, 2020, after just turning 26 years old, Severud had her world forever changed when she learned of her leukemia diagnosis.
“I was scared,” she said. “Honestly, I thought I was done. But, my mom didn’t let me give up.”
Severud began to fight and hasn’t stopped. In January she had a bone marrow transplant and is still on the road to recovery. Like Zazueta, the battle with cancer made her take a step back and take a broader look at her life.
“It’s definitely changed me,” Severud said. “I used to be a worry bug and had to plan out every day. Now, I just go with the flow and live one day at a time. If something doesn’t go my way, it doesn’t go my way.”
Severud has no intention of being anything other than a winner in her fight with cancer, and it’s only fitting that her team, Cory’s Crew, won the softball tournament.
Before the tournament began, those in attendance heard a special message from Jamie Whitmore, a world-renowned athlete who is a cousin of Ziehlke and a cancer survivor. Whitmore was a competitor for XTERRA Triathlon, where she was the 2004 world champion and won over 30 races, which included United States championships in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007.
In 2008, Whitmore was diagnosed with spindle cell sarcoma and had to have her left foot amputated. But that didn’t stop her from competing, as Whitmore went on to win gold and silver medals at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Whitmore knows what it’s like to have her life altered in a way she never expected and wanted everyone to know that hard things can be accomplished, and there’s always someone who will be there for support.
“We can never do anything alone, and I always tell people that it takes a village,” Whitmore said. “To see an event like this, where all the people are donating their time and coming out here to have some fun and to do it all for a good cause that will directly help people is important. Even with insurance, there are still a lot of things that aren’t covered. Things like this make a huge difference in someone’s life.”
Whitmore has been cancer-free for 13 years, but because the cancer took a limb, she’s constantly reminded of her fierce battle.
“Every day is a fight because my cancer left me with a disability, so I’m constantly reminded of what I went through 13 years ago,” Whitmore said. “Every day that I get up, and I walk and have phantom nerve pains is a reminder. I absolutely know that I’m stronger now than I was before, because of what I went through. Mine was an incredibly severe pain because it was nerve cancer. If it had continued, I don’t know how I would have survived, so they had to get rid of the pain. I definitely think it also changed me because I almost lost my life three times during that battle. Even though I feel like I appreciated life before, I absolutely appreciate it now.”
Perhaps the message that she wanted Zazueta and Severud to hear the most is that, regardless of what they are going through, they are never alone. Saturday was a perfect example of that.
“Because my cancer was so rare, it often felt like nobody understood,” Whitmore said. “As I went through my journey, there were a lot of people who actually faced similar circumstances. For me, being an elite athlete actually helped a lot with my fight against cancer because I had a refusal to give up and to let it negatively affect me. But it still didn’t stop me from having days that were really hard and tough, but to have people around me and knowing that my fight was inspiring others, really helped me to stay positive.”