Former Bemidji woman and her husband hope to use tragedy to help others
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- Kirby Pert was impressed that one of the best players at The Palms Golf Club in La Quinta, a club noted for its strong roster of players, only would allow assistant pro Tracy (Depew) Lane to re-grip his golf clubs.
"I always thought that was pretty cool that, as a female, the guy we thought was the best player at our club would only look to her to re-grip his clubs," Pert said of Lane, who graduated from Bemidji High School and Bemidji State University and played golf for the Beavers.
Through a series of assistant pro positions at some of the most exclusive clubs in the Coachella Valley, Lane proved she knew how to take care of members. What she knows now is that she should have focused on her own well-being.
"I was pretty ignorant and didn't take care of myself. I didn't take the time to make sure I was healthy," said Lane, who at 31 is in the final stages of terminal cervical cancer. "l didn't take the time to see a doctor. I didn't think it would happen to me."
Last August, Tracy, most recently an assistant pro at The Reserve in Indian Wells, was diagnosed with Stage 3B cervical cancer, an advanced stage of the disease.
Through his connections as director of golf at the high-profile Quarry in La Quinta, Tracy's husband, Derek, put together what Derek called a super team of doctors, with treatment at Long Beach Memorial Hospital and the UC Irvine Medical Center. Because of the position of the tumor, in the cervix but also attached to the wall of the bladder, a hysterectomy, was not an option in Tracy's case.
"We went through extensive radiation and chemotherapy and internal (radioactive) seed implants to try to neutralize the cancer," Derek said. "Even though we thought the chances were still very good of beating it, we knew upfront that it was going to be a very uphill battle."
As Lane enters hospice care at the couples' La Quinta home this week, the couple is going public with their story in an effort to raise funds for research and to spread the message of testing, screening and vaccination for cervical cancer.
"You don't really hear about cervical cancer all that often," Tracy said through tears during a telephone interview. "It's not that discussed. Breast cancer and prostate cancer are discussed, but women and cervical cancer is not really that discussed. It seems like the more I go along there are a lot more women that this happened to and people don't know about it."
Even in the midst of watching his wife's struggle, Derek planned to establish The Tracy Lane Foundation as a way of raising funds and pushing education about female cancers.
"After we went to hospice we kind of wanted to have something that was an outlet for betterment," Derek said. "You know, at 31, it is beyond tragic. I'm literally out of tears. I don't have any left. But if we can make a difference for people to go get pap smears and examinations for people in that 25-35 range, it would mean the world if we could save one person."
The educational message is simple: screening and testing can detect and beat cervical cancer, and a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 can help prevent the disease. The Centers for Disease Control says cervical cancer is highly preventable in most Western countries because of the availability of screening tests like pap smears and the vaccine to prevent the human papillomavirus (HPV), the primary cause of cervical cancer. The CDC says cervical cancer is highly treatable and can be associated with long survival and a good quality of life.
But Tracy admits she was among what the National Health Interview Survey estimates is about one out of five women between the ages of 21 and 65 who are not diligent in getting recommended pelvic exams or pap smears.
"I was not aware of the shot. All of the other preventative stuff, I did know about," Tracy said. "I just didn't do what I was supposed to do."
The American Cancer Society recommends a pap smear every three years for women 21 to 29 years old, and a pap test combined with an HPV test every five years for women starting at age 30 through age 65.
A pap test in May 2012, the first she had in five or six years, came back clear of cancer for Tracy, while symptoms, including some vaginal bleeding, were thought to be caused by infections. But a test three months later told a different story. Tracy was already in Stage 3B.
"We literally had just got back from Bandon Dunes (in Oregon)," Derek said. "We had a five-day trip. We played 36 holes every day. She went into the doctor's office just thinking it was a cervical female problem. It was a body blow. It was just hard to fathom."
The August diagnosis came just after Tracy had taken a job at The Reserve Club in Indian Wells. It was the latest move in a career that started when she took up the game in the sixth grade. A college player at Division II Bemidji State, Tracy never dreamed of an LPGA career.
"I thought that was a tough way to make a paycheck," she said.
Through some connections, she landed a job as player host at The Golf Club at Black Rock in Coueur d'Alene, Idaho. Some members at Black Rock were also members at The Quarry, and that connection brought Tracy to the Coachella Valley. At The Quarry, Tracy met Derek, and the attraction was immediate.
"She's my wife, my best friend. We travel everywhere together. We spend 365 days a year together," Derek said. "I fell in love with her because she'd rather be together with the guys, my friends, than anything else."
The Lanes married in 2007, but Quarry club rules meant Tracy had to find a job at another desert club. She first worked at Andalusia Country Club in La Quinta, then was the first personnel hire by Pert when he was named head pro at The Palms.
"She loves golf. She loves both members, men and women," Pert said. "The great thing about her is that in a pretty male-dominated business, she was able to fit in immediately. She was a big asset at a club where we have really good players. She could fit in with all of them."
After three years at The Palms, Tracy left for The Reserve - what Derek described as Tracy's dream job. Then came the diagnosis, but Tracy continued to work until January, when Derek said she just didn't have the strength to stand while working anymore. Tracy seemed to improve at times, but Derek said the cancer would go into hiding, then reappear at other times.
"All the way through the middle of March we thought there was a great chance of beating this," Derek said. "But everything she went through has gone wrong. She hasn't caught a break from the external radiation to the chemotherapy to the seed implants. She's had two emergency surgeries, and she has had a lot of side effects with pain. It couldn't necessarily have been any worse than it has been."
An imaging scan on Valentine's Day looked good, but another scan in April brought devastating news.
"The cancer was everywhere," Derek said. "It was really tough for us, because Feb. 14 through the first of April they were talking that we didn't see anything, it didn't show up on the PET (positron emission tomography scan). But essentially the cancer would cloak itself around real cells. And what you thought you were looking as a real cell, it was actually a cell cloaked by cancer."
Derek said the cancer had now appeared in lymph nodes from Tracy's neck to her pelvis. Pain treatment included everything from methadone at first to morphine now.
"That's where we kind of knew we were at the terminal stage," Derek said.
Included in the outpouring of support for Tracy was an unexpected phone call from Jerry Kill, head football coach at the University of Minnesota. The Lanes are longtime Gopher football fans. Kill also sent a football to Tracy. It was autographed by the coach and veteran Star Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman.
As the couple pursued treatment, the idea of using their fight to help others took shape.
"It's a lot easier to go forward when the person that has (the cancer) is as strong as Tracy is," Derek said. "It makes for a lot of the different things we are doing."
With the help of attorney Michael Licari of the DELT Law firm in San Diego, Derek has put together The Tracy Lane Foundation to raise funds for research and to raise awareness of testing and the HPV vaccine, a vaccine that has been controversial, but has gained acceptance in the medical community.
"The corporation itself is actually formed and registered with the state," Licari said. "Where we are at now is petitioning the IRS for tax-exempt status. There will be a couple of more procedural things we'll have to do, but we are now just kind of waiting for the IRS."
Derek Lane made the first major contribution to the foundation Monday. Much of that money will be from a foundation that was formed at The Quarry for employees which gave the Lanes what Derek called "a significant amount."
"We wanted to go live with it when she accepted hospice," Derek said. "I have been thinking about it for quite awhile with some other people. I've got five members from The Quarry on the board of our foundation. And I've worked very hard behind the scenes to set it up in a very slow manner."
Derek said he wanted to wait on taking the foundation live so the effort wouldn't seem as much as a memorial for Tracy as a chance to spread the message.
"I didn't want Tracy to have to fight the stigma of anything like that until we accepted hospice into our lives and we knew we were going into a different stage of the fight," Derek said. "Now it is comfort versus fighting the cancer itself."
That acceptance has become part of the daily lives of the Lanes, even as the fight continues.
"We're still fighting, definitely," Tracy said. "But you kind of have to have an acceptance when you face it every day, facing treatment. But you are still fighting. You want to get healthy at the end. I want to live as long as I can."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was published Saturday in the Desert Sun of Palm Springs, and is reprinted with permission of the Desert Sun. It was updated by the Bemidji Pioneer. Additional information is available on the Desert Sun's website: mydesert.com. The Tracy Lane Foundation is raising funds for research and to raise awareness of testing and the HPV vaccine. Mail donations to: The Tracy Lane Foundation c/o DELT Law, 5402 Ruffin Road Suite 209, San Diego, CA 92123.