Fighting for a cure

When Kayla Prescott Ranieri walked across the RIC stage in May 2006 to accept her bachelor's degree in communications, her first intent was to work in broadcasting after a successful internship at a local television station.

But along the way, she answered a call of compassion, choosing instead to become involved in fundraising and advocacy for wellness programs, sparked by her mother's long and courageous battle with cancer.

Ranieri's communication degree helps her, she said, in the motivational speeches and newsletters she prepares for her clients.

Her mission is personal. Her achievements are widespread. Her determination is contagious.

This is her story, in her own words...

Kayla (Prescott) Ranieri
When we are young, many of us view our lives as a safe little bubble. You see bad things on television or in movies, but for the most part we are sheltered from anything negative. We feel that we are invincible. We are blessed with a sweet innocence and naïveté.

But at some point in our lives we realize that we are not invincible, and that, unfortunately, bad things can and do happen to good people. This is of course essential for our growth as individuals, and it happens at different times for different people in many different ways. For me, it happened in my sophomore year of high school.

It all started one horrendous morning, after one glorious night. Just a few hours earlier, I was laughing and celebrating with all of my friends on the Lincoln Lions pre-teen cheerleading team. We had just won first runner-up in our cheerleading competition after a long season of games and seemingly endless nights of practice. We had put our all into it and it showed.

I fell asleep holding my trophy and replaying the night in my mind. At that moment I was a young, happy, ambitious teen without a care or fear in the world. In my mind, my biggest problems were related to teenage gossip and figuring out which boy I liked more. I had no idea how my life was about to change, how I would so rapidly go from being a naïve child to a young woman on a mission.

It was 5 a.m. when I heard the phone ring. At this hour, I just knew it wasn’t good. And within the hour, there it was on every news station. I watched my mother’s restaurant burn to the ground, along with all the other businesses and apartments in the plaza.

I was in shock. First I waited to hear that everyone got out alive, and they did. Next, I thought of the pictures on the wall that would be lost, pictures of friends, family and customers. Then reality really hit me. This was our life. This is what kept us going, and now it’s gone.

The restaurant was a total loss. I thought this was the worst thing that could ever happen to my family. Watching my mother, Carolyn Prescott, cry as she sifted through the ashes completely broke my heart. But little did I know that this was really the best thing that could have happened to my family. It was a blessing in disguise.

After a few weeks my mother began looking for jobs in local cafeterias and restaurants, and my stepfather went back into his construction business full time. Aside from job hunting, my mother had also been able to catch up on her doctor’s appointments. For over six years she had been working seven days a week at her restaurant and had never taken time out for herself. She, like many others, put her own needs on the back burner and took care of her family and business first. But now that the restaurant was gone, she decided to spend some time on herself.

It was April Fool’s day, but it was no joke. My mother received the dreaded call. “The results are back, the tumor is malignant.” My mother was only 38 years old when she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. Her doctor told her that one more month without treatment and there would have been nothing they could have done for her.

Carolyn Prescott holds her grandson, Louie Ranieri.
My brother Lewis and I were very young. I was only 15 and he was 12. So she did not immediately tell us the whole truth. At first she told us that she had a tumor and that she had to go through some treatments. But as she prepared for her rounds of high dose chemotherapy reality set in hard. She made it as light as possible for us. She is and always has been the strongest woman I know. She had always made us think that everything was perfect, even if the world was crashing down around her. And she kept this façade going as she began the battle for her life.

My mother had the longest, most beautiful brown hair. Everyone would always compliment her on it. Before her first chemo treatment she let me and my brother cut her hair little by little into several different hairstyles as my stepfather snapped photos. We ended with the much anticipated mohawk and then shaved it all off.

That was the first time I cried. It was the first moment when I realized what was really happening, and that is was affecting my mother despite how hard she fought to hide it. All I could think of was my grandmother Eva. Eva was my father’s mother, and she had passed away from breast cancer eight years earlier. I couldn’t even fathom losing my mom, so as she fought for her life I silently fought with her in prayer.

As her treatments began, our lives changed dramatically. For the first time in my life, everything fell into perspective. It was like I had been slapped in the face with reality and suddenly everything was clear. I had always loved my family, but at that point I fully realized how precious life was, and how we all needed to appreciate every moment we were given. I immediately understood that no matter who you are or what you do, your life could change in an instant.

Over the next couple of years, I learned the true meaning of bravery as I watched my mother battle this disease. Because her cancer was so advanced, she had a special team of doctors working with her. She had to go through some grueling trial treatments that I do not wish upon anyone. We found ourselves scheduling our lives around her chemotherapy. We knew what her good days would probably be and we knew for sure what her bad days would be.

Because she was given high-dose chemotherapy treatments, she was very ill afterwards. I remember going into her room one night to tell her I was going out to eat with my boyfriend and found her rocking in her chair. She was so sick that she couldn’t even open her eyes or speak to me. I just kissed her forehead and spoke to her anyway. I knew she was awake because a tear ran down her cheek when I told her I loved her. The feeling I had at that moment is one I will never forget.

On her good days, it was hard to believe she was even sick. The good days always came directly after the really bad days. It seemed to be like this: chemotherapy, a few really bad days that seemed to never end, followed by a few good days where her energy was endless. During these good days, our home had never been so spotless. Rooms were bleached, repainted and rewallpapered, and floors were even refinished. Part of this was because she had bursts of energy after her treatment weeks, and part was because she was so afraid to get sick with her immunities so low that she wanted the house completely disinfected. I remember even staying with my aunt one time because I was sick and couldn’t risk infecting my mom. A common cold would have put her in the hospital for weeks.

My mother had several complications from the high-dose chemotherapy. Along with battling her cancer, she suddenly had to battle lung and bone diseases. She was constantly in the hospital and back and forth to doctors’ offices like it was her job. In one visit to the hospital for her lung condition, she gained 80 pounds from the steroids she was pumped with. As she continued the steroids she continued to gain. It was hard to see how self-conscious she had become. Her best of friends didn’t recognize her.

Throughout these few terrible years none of us gave up hope. Everyone around her tried hard to make sure she was constantly surrounded with positive energy.

It has been 12 years since my mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. She fought harder for her life than I have ever seen anyone fight for anything. Because of her positive attitude and the amazing advancements in medicine, my mother was not only able to watch both my brother and I graduate high school, but she also attended my graduation from Rhode Island College and my wedding. She has been able to enjoy my son, her very first grandchild, and we have had some amazing times and made some priceless memories over the years.

She is still reminded of her battle as she goes through surgeries to replace joints that were damaged from the chemotherapy, but as she says, that is a small price to pay for the time she has been given with her family and friends.

The difficult memories and the fear I experienced have molded me into the person I am today. I can’t say I wish to forget what my mother went through. It’s actually quite the opposite. Yes, I wish that my mom never had to experience any of the pain, sickness, or fear, but she did and I want to always remember what we all went through during that frightening time.

I can tuck it away in the back of my mind, but I never want it to leave me. These memories are the fuel to my fire. They are the reason I fight to find a cure for breast cancer.

I started donating to the American cancer society shortly after I moved out of my house and started college. Whenever mailers came asking for donations for cancer research, I tried my best to send out a donation. Even if I could only send five dollars, I felt I had to send something. After all, it was all the donations of people before me that helped with the research and development of all the treatments that helped save my mom’s life.

As the years went on, I started to research more about the foundations and societies that raised funds for breast cancer research and awareness. I was very impressed by the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I read about their 3-Day for the Cure event and immediately knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. For the three years I told myself that I was going to register, and didn’t. It is a decent-sized commitment: walking for 3 days straight, rain or shine, 60 miles in total, sleeping overnight in tents and raising a minimum or $2,300.

This year, I promised myself I would register, and I did. I am constantly driven to find a way to spread breast cancer awareness locally and to raise money for breast cancer research. I realized that the Komen 3-Day would be the perfect way. I was thrilled to find out that a portion of the funds raised stays locally in and around the city you register to walk in. Since I am walking in Boston, I know some of the funds I raise will go to helping local awareness programs and research groups.

Once I registered and made it official, my fundraising journey began. Several years ago I had found a journal my mom kept during chemo. I had never been brave enough to open it. But as I embarked on my journey for a cure, I decided it would be a good inspiration for me. I read only a few pages and all the memories came flooding back. It was like ripping a Band-aid off an old wound. Suddenly I was more motivated to find a cure than I ever had been. I knew I had to raise a minimum of $2,300, but after reading a few pages of mom’s journal I immediately set my goal at $5,000. Go big or go home!

I knew that the more funds I raised, the sooner a cure could be found. And if I could be part of preventing even one woman from going through the pain and suffering my mother went through, it would mean the world to me.

I started with sending out a mass email to my friends and family and getting busy notifying all of my Facebook friends. Slowly donations began to trickle in, but I started worrying that I might not make my goal. I knew that with just about everyone having some form of financial difficulty this would be a tough time to get donations, and it was proving to be a bit harder than I anticipated.

I decided to host an event where family and friends could come together, and I could share my burning desire to end breast cancer. I am always a big fan of getting friends and family together for any reason, so there was nothing more fitting than a Pink Party fundraiser to get us all together again and raise some funds at the same time. I got to work creating invitations, flyer, tickets and finding a restaurant that would be generous enough to lower their normal prices to help make this a more profitable event.

I finally decided on Silvio’s Restaurant in Johnston. They are a family-owned business that was on board right from the moment I mentioned the cause. For about two months, I spent every free moment calling, texting and Facebooking people about my fundraising event. I was able to find people generous enough to donate prizes for a raffle and some beautiful decorations.

As the date closed in on us, my friends and family were a huge help. Everyone was talking about the Pink Party. The night before the party a few of my best friends donated their time to come help me decorate and set up the banquet hall at Silvio’s. The owners of the restaurant were kind enough to let us stay there until one in the morning preparing.

The room looked gorgeous. Tables were adorned with pink table cloths and centerpieces made up of pink martini glasses, pink balloons, breast cancer awareness bracelets and pins, and topped off with Komen for the Cure chocolates with inspirational messages written inside. Everything, including the DJ booth was wrapped in pink material. It was so beautiful, and I couldn’t wait for the event.

Finally the Pink Party day was here. Everyone arrived decked out in pink clothing in support of the event. Even some of the men sported pink polo shirts and sunglasses! We enjoyed pink martini specials, a delicious spread of food from Silvio’s restaurant and a decadent display of desserts all donated by family and friends. The DJ was amazing (thanks, Jeff Krauss!) and the mood was set. It was obvious that we were all there for one reason, to fund the fight for a cure.

My favorite part of the night came right before I called the raffle winners and I was able to speak to all the guests directly. They all knew why they were there, but it became more personal when I shared a little bit of my story and my reason for being part of such an amazing event as the 3-Day for the Cure. I was glad to be able to stress the importance of early detection and education, knowing your body, knowing what to look for and keeping up with your doctor’s visits. The raffle generated hundreds of dollars. Patrons from the restaurant were even sending donations when they found out what type event we were holding.

By the end of the night, the event had raised $2,000 for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Since the Pink Party, I have continued to raise more funds and I will not stop. When I reach my original goal of $5,000, I will simply log onto my 3-Day for the Cure profile and reset my goal!

I just kicked off a Challenge for the Cure weight-loss challenge at the Shake It Off nutrition club in Providence. I opened the business two years ago knowing that it was a great way to help people and teach them how to live a healthy lifestyle. Now I am able to combine my work at the club with my fundraising efforts, helping people reach their weight loss goals and raise funds at the same time.

In our Challenge for the Cure, participants pay $20 to enter, and $5 of every entry fee is donated to the 3-Day for the Cure. The remaining $15 is put into a jackpot. Participants are taught how to live a healthy lifestyle and at the end of the challenge, the three people who have lost the most body fat win cash prizes.

We have been running weight-loss challenges since I opened the business and I honestly have fallen in love with the idea of incorporating a charity into our challenges. I will be continuing this trend when we run our next challenge.

I have learned that if you really want something in life you just have to get out there and do something about it. Nothing great was ever accomplished without action. I have also found that it’s very simple to raise a few dollars here and there for any cause if you just plug your fundraising into your daily events.

For example, my next fundraising event will be run by my three-year-old son. I wanted to let him run a lemonade stand this summer, so now he will be setting up a Cold One for the Cure pink lemonade stand. He will be selling sugar-free pink lemonade and pretzel rods outside of my nutrition club for a couple of hours. It will be a fun activity for him as he loves to pretend he is serving people all the time, and 100 percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure in honor of his Grammy. Of course, there will be a tip cup if anyone wants to tip him, and he will be allowed to buy himself a treat with his earnings!

My life now revolves around helping and inspiring people. I see how amazing people feel as they transform their minds and bodies through my nutrition club, so I can only imagine what it will feel like when a cure for breast cancer is found and lives are not only changed but are saved. To know that I was a part of that will be the most amazing feeling in the world.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of inspirational quotes. I truly believe that a good quote can change people’s lives. I have several of my favorites saved in my phone so that they are always on hand and I am constantly posting what I call “quote therapy” on my Facebook page.

Whenever I stumble across a good one, I post it hoping it will brighten someone else’s day as it has brightened mine. One of my favorites is by Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

As with so many other Churchill quotes, this one tugged my heartstrings the first time I read it. There is nothing more true. My wish is that my actions will inspire others to get involved in a cause that is close to their hearts. Because if we all do a little bit more, this world will change a whole lot.