The words on her back were simple enough—“I Beat Cancer.” But the depth of their meaning changed the way 14-year-old Katherine Athanassiades approaches life.
Before being diagnosed with a rare type of brain tumor near her pituitary gland last fall, Athanassiades was in gifted classes in the eighth grade at Paideia and a member of the school’s middle school swim team. A swimmer since the age of 4, Athanassiades has been a member of the DeKalb Aquatics swim team since the second grade and is on a team at Venetian Pools in Decatur.
Athanassiades endured neurosurgery, chemotherapy and radiation and was declared cancer free by her doctors in early July. The rare form of cancer, a pure germinoma brain tumor, has a 95 percent recovery rate, according to her mother, Beth Athanassiades.
“Only 100 kids every year are diagnosed with it, but it has a good prognosis,” Beth Athanassiades said.
Katherine, who had the words written on her back this summer as she coached the younger swimmers at Venetian, still has a passion for swimming, but now for different reasons.
“As I got back into swimming, I realized how much it really helped me,” said Katherine, who missed nearly her entire school year and will be in the eighth grade this fall at Paideia. “Swimming has always been there and it’s what gets me through. Everyone has been supportive and it always makes me feel better when I’m around the pool.”
She recently used her passion for swimming to help others by organizing a swim-a-thon at Venetian Pools to benefit CURE Childhood Cancer, an organization that supported her during treatment. More than 40 Venetian members participated in the June 25 event and raised $9,200 for the organization. Katherine swam 100 laps and was the top teenage fundraiser, bringing in more than $2,700 in donations.
“It felt really good and it was nice to see people support me for a cause I’m fighting for,” Katherine said. “It was good to see my teammates push themselves and watch everyone come together as a community over this.”
Katherine’s journey to recovery has put things in a different perspective for her and her family. Friends and family rallied around her as she endured spinal taps, headaches and other side effects from the chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“The main thing is we have seen how compassionate people are,” Beth Athanassiades said. “You see people have [the disease] worse than you do and it puts things in perspective.”
Not surprising to her mother, Katherine has taken her life back since the MRI earlier this summer showed she was cancer free. Having missed nearly the entire school year, Katherine went back for the final two weeks, and she has returned to her swim teams to help out as a coach this summer.
“Her teacher [at Paideia] told her she had matured five years in five months,” Beth Athanassiades said. “It speaks to her character. Also, this summer she left the house every morning at 8 a.m. to be a volunteer coach. She’s very compassionate.”
Her mother saw other signs that her daughter was not going to let the cancer beat her. Katherine, a clarinet player, decided this past February to attend band class at Paideia even though she was not attending other classes.
“She didn’t have to go, but I got her to band class at 7 a.m.,” Beth Athanassiades said. “The band director gave her a special award. That’s just the kind of kid she is.”
The treatment has left Katherine with learning challenges. Remembering to do simple things like chores, or processing a lot of information at once such as a long math problem, has become difficult. But Katherine has worked through it by spending time with friends and family, including her 9-year-old boxer Greta.
Because of the treatment, Katherine gets tired easily and is not sure when she will be able to return to competitive swimming at the level she was before the tumor. But that hasn’t kept her away from the pool. The swim-a-thon was her idea and she has found it therapeutic to help out with the younger swimmers.
“Coaching gave me so much satisfaction,” Katherine said. “To see the junior [swimmers] get better meant so much to me.
“The big thing is that I always wanted to win,” she said. “But now just being there is more important than winning. I put the words ‘I Beat Cancer’ on my back as a reminder for myself. It means that even though you may beat me in a race, there is something more important than that.”