Nov 21, 2019
By Steve Brown/SanDiegoGulls.com
Ashley Keenberg’s fight is different than any fight she’s witnessed on the ice at a Gulls game.
Hockey Fights Cancer is a campaign uniting the hockey community and supporting people with cancer and their families. It’s also the sport’s greatest platform to raise awareness and highlight the risks of cancer.
Cancer affects every individual at one point or another, whether it be a family member, friend, colleague, neighbor…or even the individual themselves. For one Gulls fan, the topic hits close to home in more ways than one.
“It’s kind of like a freak accident that I found out I had cancer,” said longtime Gulls fan Keenberg. “I was sent by my primary care doctor because my family runs a risk because of the BRCA mutation. My mother and maternal grandmother had breast cancer.”
In a preventative screening due to her family’s history she had an MRI in February 2017.
“My primary doctor said, ‘Let’s send you off to get a screening, they won’t find anything so don’t worry about it,’’’ she remembered. “It was a shock that I actually did have a mass, and my lymph nodes were affected too. I had metastasized to my lymph nodes as well.”
You can imagine the feelings of shock, disbelief and horror as a young woman received seemingly unfathomable news.
“I was in shock,” she said. “My mom had just come back from her breast cancer surgery. It was a total shock to us. We weren’t expecting it at all. It was just out of nowhere. They never thought I would have cancer at 27 said all the doctors I had talked to previously, because I was tested for the mutation. I found out at 22 that I had the mutation. They told me don’t worry until you’re 30, nothing’s going to happen. Of course when you find out you have cancer, it’s a huge shock. For me to be 27…that was crazy.”
Two years after her original diagnosis, the San Diego native is still fighting. From five surgeries, six cycles of chemotherapy and medication to treat a mass in her brain and combat her breast cancer, it’s certainly been a long, hard road.
“I’m doing good. I just had my re-diagnosis in July (2019),” said Keenberg. “I have stage 4 breast cancer now. It’s hard. I think it’s harder this time to find out I have stage 4 cancer than it was to find out my initial diagnosis. You have a mortality rate. You have a five-year time span from when you got diagnosed to when you die. My doctor said I have a better outcome, but still it’s hard to handle. As of right now I’m trying to live my life and carry on, and just be status quo.”
While a diagnoses such as stage 4 could halt her in her tracks, she has a positive outlook and a support group like no other.
“I try my best. I try to be positive and have a good outlook on everything,” she added. “It’s hard to process. You never know what the future holds or anything like that. Just taking it one day at a time has always been my biggest key to success.”
How does she stay positive and what does she do to improve her daily life? She’s a Gulls fan, for one. A longtime fan at that.
“I’ve been a Gulls fan since I was a little kid but I think I got even more into hockey recently, the last four-to-five years since they’ve been back,” she said with a smile. “I started coming to games with my dad again. I think the second season (2016-17), it’s become an obsession to me. I’m so obsessed with hockey.”
It’s at the 53-year old Pechanga Arena San Diego where she found a community of friends, neighbors and supporters that have been with her since her diagnosis.
“I’ve met so many people from just coming to games. You meet a new group here and there, and every season I’ve gotten to know more and more people,” she said when asked about the community of Gulls fans. “It’s just overwhelming the support I had this summer. Everybody has reached out to me to find out if I’m OK. They wanted to come see me and just find out how I was doing. Before the season started there was a little get-together of people that I’ve met…I love knowing that everybody was genuinely worried about me and they cared how I was doing. That to me means a lot, more than they probably know.”
It’s at games where she can enjoy the confines of an arena where her favorite team plays and they battle every shift. She reminisced how her father brought her to games in the early 90’s when there were more fights than goals.
It’s a place she’s always loved coming and to this day it’s a welcome site to see the team on the ice.
“Getting out to games, it takes my mind off everything I have going on,” she said. “Some days I’m sad or I don’t feel like doing much, but if I know there’s a game going on it gives me a purpose to totally distract me from my reality. It’s a nice distraction to have. I definitely appreciate it.”
It’s not just the connection with the team watching them from behind the glass, helping her through her battle.
“The Gulls organization has become intertwined to San Diego,” she added, discussing her favorite thing about the Gulls. “They incorporate their fans into everything. The fans have really gotten to know the players. The unity between the fans and the players, you don’t find that a lot of places in other leagues. It’s just so special the connection we have between us and the organization.”
This year, that connection will continue to grow. Especially with Keenberg. San Diego is one of 22 AHL member clubs designating a home game as a Hockey Fights Cancer awareness night in 2019-20. The Gulls will don a unique, lavender-themed jersey for the entirety of the game Saturday night, with players using lavender stick tape and wearing helmet decals for the Hockey Fights Cancer campaign. Many of the game-worn jerseys will be auctioned off for charity to benefit Relay for Life San Diego, the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.
“It’s bringing awareness to a market that might not think that they’re at risk,” said Keenberg on Hockey Fights Cancer. “I think that bringing awareness is one of the best things you can do. If people are more vigilant and know their risks for cancer, it helps a lot. For the NHL to be involved, the Gulls involved, it means a lot. It means that they’re bringing more awareness to a disease that affects a lot of people. I think it’s important.”
Lavender, the official color of Hockey Fights Cancer, represents all cancers and will be featured prominently throughout the campaign. To join the conversation, use the official hashtag #HockeyFightsCancer.