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Girls pool health effort Breast cancer awareness fundraiser shows Amherst swimming team's support for coach

Four weeks ago, Debbie Sullivan, a coach for the Amherst girls swim team, sat her daughter down for some scary news: Sullivan had breast cancer, the same disease that had claimed her own mother's life.

"I have a lot of friends with moms who have breast cancer," said Kaelyn Sullivan, 17, who is on her mom's swim team. "When she told me, I was like, Oh my gosh. This is crazy. It's another person with breast cancer, but this is someone close to me."

To show her support for her mother, Kaelyn bought a charm bracelet with a silver ribbon pendant representing breast cancer awareness. The bracelet then gave her the idea that would blossom into Friday night's "Pink the Pool" fundraiser for Amherst High's last home swim meet of the season.

Kaelyn explained that she was looking at the ribbon-shaped charm when it occurred to her that "this thing kind of looks like a fish."

It just so happened that the swim team was getting ready to design and print its annual T-shirts.

Most years, the T-shirts were emblazoned with an Amherst Tigers logo of some variety. But Kaelyn had the idea of creating pink T-shirts with the breast-cancer ribbon turned into a fish: The emblem would represent both cancer awareness and the team's support for their coach, as well as the mothers of at least three other Amherst High School students who were recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

At first, Sullivan was embarrassed by the attention to her disease. But the girls on the team insisted. "We already outvoted you," the girls told Sullivan.

"I wanted to start crying," Sullivan said, recalling how touched she was. "They were so behind the idea."

As they put in the order for the T-shirts, the girls started thinking of other ways they could raise awareness and donations to fight breast cancer.

They decided to turn their final at-home swim meet into a fundraiser with all the money collected going to Estee Lauder's Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign.

The swimmers began collecting baskets to be auctioned off. By Friday, they had close to 50 baskets.

They got a baby pool, which they would fill with pink-dyed water for people to toss coins into to make wishes -- and raise money. They figured turning the actual pool at Sweet Home High School -- where Amherst swims because of its top-notch pool -- would cause too many problems.

"It would change the color of their bathing suits -- and their bodies," Sullivan figured.

The T-shirts were on sale at the meet as well.

Kaelyn said the shirts have been selling extremely well. Dozens and dozens were sold Thursday at the high school. The women teachers at Smallwood Elementary bought them and wore theirs Friday to school.

Sullivan is thrilled about her community rallying together for breast cancer awareness.

She is especially excited about spreading the word on early prevention.

Sullivan explained that she had been extra vigilant about getting screened for breast cancer since her mother died of the disease.

A month ago, she got an MRI that showed that she, too, had the potentially fatal disease.

The cancer was caught early and Sullivan knows it spared her much of the pain and misery people often associate with cancer.

Sullivan said she underwent a double mastectomy but was able to go home the same day. She was back to coaching four days later. She also doesn't need any chemotherapy, she said.

"There is an upside to early detection," she said. "It's been 3 1/2 weeks [since surgery] and I'm perfectly fine. This is not something of dread."


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