Wineka column: Diagnosed with breast cancer, 13-year-old proving ‘she’s a fighter’

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 18, 2014

CLEVELAND — Even a casual observer watching Hannah Roberts warm up can tell her fastball — clocked at 57 mph on the radar gun — has some life to it.
With every pitch, the yellow softball cracks into her dad’s mitt, and between each delivery, Hannah stomps and paws around her front-yard mound like a nervous bull who can’t wait to punch out the next imaginary batter.
Just three months ago, the determined Hannah, diagnosed with a rare stromal tumor in breast tissue, underwent a left mastectomy to remove the 6.8-centimeter mass.
Pathology reports came back after the operation to show the density of the benign tumor, now removed, had been masking cancer cells in the underlying tissue.
Hannah, a 13-year-old rising eighth-grader, had Stage 1 breast cancer.
Even though she has healed from the surgery and returned to her first love — softball — Hannah is taking Tamoxifen, an oral form of chemotherapy, and pointing toward her next examination at the end of the month.
At that visit, Hannah also hopes to learn more about a small knot that has appeared in her right breast.
There have been tears and one ball-field tantrum of frustration from Hannah during her illness, but most days she seems newly resolved to earn a Division I softball scholarship and make Team USA. Someday.
Her sense of humor also is intact. She laughs at a T-shirt she saw recently from a breast cancer survivor that said, “Yeah, they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me.”
Hannah and her parents, Jimmy and Anita Roberts, believe God and softball have kept them going through her illness — and the painful medical issues making it difficult for Jimmy to work since May 2013.
Along the way, some incredible things have happened, not the least of which is Hannah’s friendship with one of the best college softball players in the country, Jackie Traina of the University of Alabama.
Since Hannah and Traina first met each other after an April game in Chapel Hill, they have communicated by telephone, email or social media at least weekly.
The recently graduated Traina also has been named to the 17-member Team USA softball team, whose players have pretty much adopted Hannah as a teammate.
Earlier this month, Roberts spent an entire USA exhibition game in Morgantown, W.Va., in the team dugout. She also attended the team’s softball clinic in Morgantown, while Traina and others showered her with USA stuff, including balls, shirts and a special pink helmet signed by all the players.
At home, the family has been overwhelmed by the generosity of friends, neighbors and West Rowan Middle School, where a student art show raised about $800 toward the Roberts’ medical expenses.
Cindy Carriker has organized a daylong fundraiser for next Wednesday (see box), and softball parents and teammates, such as Shannon Barber and her daughter Cheyenne, have raised awareness through pink bracelets and T-shirts, all emblazoned with what has become the rally cry for Hannah — “She’s a fighter.”
“She’s better and stronger than she’s ever been,” Anita Roberts says.
Hannah experienced so much pain in the months leading up to her mid-April surgery that being pain free is like a new lease on life.
“I think surgery has helped me,” she says.
A tearful Hannah walked into her parents’ bedroom about 2 a.m. Jan. 21 complaining of a terrible pain in her left shoulder and arm. She wanted to head to the emergency room that moment.
Thinking Hannah might have a pulled or strained muscle, Jimmy and Anita decided they should try to ride out the night with Ibuprofen.
Within a couple of days, as the pain would not subside, an examination and ultrasound revealed the lump in Hannah’s left breast, Her pediatrician first treated it as inflammation, then as an abscess.
But over four weeks, the lump remained, and Hannah seemed to be in constant pain. Trips to Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte and Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem followed, along with a Feb. 22 biopsy which determined that Hannah had a rare mammary tumor called pseudoangiomatous stromal hyperplasia — PASH, for short.
“It’s so rare, it’s almost unheard of,” Anita Roberts says.
PASH was first diagnosed in 1989, and only 110 people have been diagnosed with it since 2005, according to Anita. She and Jimmy and learned Hannah was the youngest female in North Carolina with PASH, which usually shows up in pre- and post-menopausal women.
A surgeon at Brenner finally decided on the left mastectomy, but he refused the double mastectomy that Hannah requested.
“During surgery,” Anita says, “the mass itself was removed completely into the armpit. It had almost reached the lymph nodes, but thank God, had not.”
Hannah says she took a one-day-at-a-time approach, healed for a month and began taking the Tamoxifen June 2. She went back to pitching for the Iredell Wolves tournament team, whose members also joined her at Rowan County’s Relay for Life.
Hannah missed pretty much all of the seventh-grade girls basketball season and 53 days of school. With guidance from West Rowan Middle teachers, Anita home-schooled her much of the time.
Hannah’s illness would be enough for any family, but before cancer hit her it took a swipe at Jimmy Roberts.
In May 2013, Jimmy left his job at Freightliner one day with blood pressure of 198 over 175. Doctors feared he was having a stroke or heart attack.
As he continued to battle the high blood pressure and was passing out and vomiting on a regular basis, Jimmy finally was diagnosed in late August 2013 with having a pheochromocytoma — a usually benign tumor that develops in the center of an adrenal gland.
The pheochromocytoma was causing one of Jimmy’s adrenal glands — people have two — to release hormones that were causing his high blood pressure.
It took two months and seven different medications for high blood pressure to get it down to a level low enough to where the one adrenal gland could be surgically removed.
But an operation that should have taken about three hours lasted nine hours because the adrenal gland shattered, leaving fragments everywhere.
The long operation left Jimmy with nerve damage and severe pain in his back, hip and thigh — issues for which he still receives treatment. He has continued to coach jayvee softball at West Rowan and help with the varsity team.
Meanwhile, to take care of Jimmy and Hannah, Anita had to quit her job of 12 years with RHA Health Services in Statesville.
“It broke my heart,” she says.
Now, Hannah Roberts only wears No. 33 when she plays softball. It’s the same number as Traina, her favorite player and friend.
As she warms up with her father, who sits on an overturned bucket and gives her a target, Hannah showcases about five different pitches.
She has been playing softball seriously since she was 9, and once she decided on pitching, Dave Perkins has been giving her personal instruction almost weekly.
Watching nearby, Anita Edwards remembers the days only a few months back when she was putting up a brave front for Hannah but staying up all night with worry.
“I have never felt so helpless or useless in all the days of my life,” Anita says.
The support the family has received from everyone has been humbling, Anita says. Jimmy says he, Anita and Hannah had always tried to be on the giving side in the past, and they appreciate all the help now.
They try to stick in Hannah’s positive mode of one day at a time.
“It’s been prayer and hope,” Jimmy says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or