This former high school and college athletic star faced her challenger the only way she knew how. She put together a game plan on what it was going to take to beat her foe.
“To me, it was almost like a competition,” Dr. Kechia Seabrooks Rowles said of her breast cancer experience. “I’ve been in game fight situations before. You have your opponent and your goal is victory. I understood breast cancer was my opponent, and we had a plan in place and we’re going to defeat it.”
Today, the director of athletics and the athletic trainer for Rockdale County Public Schools is winning that fight. A wife and mother of an 8-year-old daughter and stepmother to a 14-year-old stepson and 12-year-old stepdaughter, Rowles says, as do many other women, this disease took her by surprise.
She had gone in for her regular mammogram and when her test was complete, the technician came back into the room to tell her the radiologist was referring her to a surgeon.
“She didn’t outright say (what it was), but gave me the number to the navigation nurse,” Rowles said. “That was my first understanding of it. For me, that’s when the reality came. I am not a full-chested woman. That’s a part of what I relate to my friends. You don’t have to have big girls to get it.”
A nurse navigator is the one who helps guide the patient through the process, answering questions and setting up appointments with specialists. Rowles’ cancer journey began the day after her birthday in November last year.
“It was not that much to celebrate,” she said. “It was the unknown. While I was grateful to experience another run around the sun, it was just the unknown. It wasn’t like I could immediately talk to someone about it. I was in the gray area and needed additional testing, but didn’t know the final answer. My doctor said that it’s not a large spot, and we don’t have to do it immediately right now.”
That is when Rowles began negotiations. She had been looking forward to two important trips and wanted to go on those trips before learning more about her health situation. Her loved ones pushed back.
“I pleaded with my family — my husband primarily — to give me these two things and then I will be 100 percent focused,” she said. “I didn’t want to have any confirmation because I wanted to genuinely enjoy these trips.”
She got her trips, one of which was to see the Heritage High School Girls’ Flag Football team compete at state. Rowles was instrumental in helping integrate Rockdale County into flag football, which has been promoted statewide by the Atlanta Falcons and the Arthur Blank Foundation. Her second trip was to Maryland for the annual conference of athletic directors from across the country where they network, exchange information and attend seminars.
By Dec. 30, Rowles was ready to focus 100 percent and had her first lumpectomy. When the results came back, doctors wanted to do a second lumpectomy, which was done Jan. 13. Doctors diagnosed her with DCIS, which is ductal carcinoma in situ, meaning the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast have become cancerous, but have not spread into surrounding breast tissue.
Rowles began radiation in February and so did her daily juggling act. She went to work in Conyers then had to leave at mid-day for radiation treatments in Decatur before coming back to work in Conyers to cover every game or practice for school sports teams.
“It was very taxing,” she said. “I was tired, but also knew I had a job to do. In the midst of this, I was still going through my treatments when school was canceled March 13, due to COVID-19. In a sense, my husband and my family were overjoyed that school and sports were canceled because that forced me to take care of me. Now I was able to go to my treatments and come back home. I didn’t have to be somewhere else.”
As an athletic trainer, Rowles said she is called on to be her best at an athlete’s worst time.
“I have to do whatever care is needed at the time for the athlete,” she added. “That was one of the factors that kind of propelled me to go to treatment and then get back.”
But with the shutdown, Rowles was now focused on her treatments.
“Radiation drained me daily, Monday through Friday,” she said. “It was what I had to do. I didn’t have another choice. I did what I had to do. I finished treatments on March 26, to no big fanfare. We were in the midst of COVID. My family wasn’t able to come in and celebrate and get to be part of that moment when you get to realize for the most part, that part of your treatment is over.”
On her last day of radiation, Rowles said she got to ring a bell signifying she completed her final treatment.
“I know not all my pink sisters get that opportunity,” she said, adding that while radiation physically drained her, the process itself caused burning under her arm and on her chest.
“After my radiation, I did have an MRI to again look,” Rowles said. “All my pink sisters want is that NED in your chart — No Evidence of Disease. You want that. I was able to get that information, but I’ll take Tamoxifen for the next five years ... I still have my appointments with the surgeon, oncologist and radiologist oncologist to make sure everything is still like it’s supposed to go. I’ll have my first post-surgery mammogram this year.”
Thinking about that worries her a little, and it is a question her young daughter sometimes asks about.
“There’s always that shadow of thinking about if it will come back and living each day and appreciating and being thankful for each day I have,” she said. “I understand there is a chance, so I’m mentally prepping and being engaged and aware in knowing there’s no 100 percent certainty.”
The only child of two school athletic coaches from Albany, Rowles says she grew up always being around a gymnasium or a track. She was a basketball and track athlete in high school and knew sports would always be part of her life. She said she was more interested in the sports training and medical side of the field than in coaching. She went to Armstrong State in Savannah where she played basketball. Rowles got her master’s degree at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and her doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy. In 2007, she became the director of athletics and the athletic trainer for Rockdale County Public Schools.
Married for almost 10 years to Brick Rowles, she said her first thoughts when doctors told her it was cancer were for her children. Rowles said her husband, children, parents, other family and friends have helped her through the ordeal. A group she calls her small core of friends traveled from Albany to be with her for support each time she had a lumpectomy. She said her faith also played a major role. The first Sunday after her diagnosis, Rowles said she went to her church, Unity Fellowship Christian Church in Conyers, where people are encouraged to bring their problems “to the altar.”
“That was one of the areas where I first verbalized it and said the C word,” she said. “Up until then, I wasn’t. I told my pastor and the congregation I was having some additional tests. From there the elders of the church put their arms around me and prayed for my healing, and I felt it. That’s just a part of it. I know everyone has their trials and tribulations. It is a cliché saying, but without a test, there is no testimony.”
Presently, she is recovering from a hysterectomy, which she opted to have as a preventative measure.
Rowles says she and her cousins and other relatives have always joked about who is going to be first in any given activity and now, not a joking matter, she is the first on both her maternal and paternal sides to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. But ever the athlete, she tackled it as she has always lived her life.
“So what is the plan now and what is the end date so we can get there,” she said. “Once we had the plan, my mind was set on the end and defeating this and beating it and getting back to some kind of normalcy. This was in January, and we didn’t know what was going to happen in March with COVID.”
These days, normalcy is slowly returning and Rowles is excited about Rockdale County sports resuming competition. She is looking forward to being there to help and cheer them on. Some students and co-workers have learned about her cancer and offered their support. Rowles has also become part of a group on Facebook that shares information and encouragement among cancer survivors. To relax, she enjoys crafting and do-it-yourself projects. Her family likes to travel and when her husband had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, she says he toured the “lower 48.” She said the family is “trying to catch up with him” and travel with him to some of the places he once visited. Rowles also hopes to encourage others who might be going through their own cancer journey.
“I struggled with my story,” Rowles said. “Everyone’s journey is different. For a while, early after my diagnosis and treatment ... I didn’t talk about it a lot because I didn’t have to go through that (a mastectomy). Or some would say in comparing my story in that I didn’t have chemo or have to get any of the other surgery...”
However, she says it is a shock when any patient gets the message from a doctor that they have cancer.
“You shouldn’t compare your story to someone else’s story,” Rowles said. “We have all been impacted and hopefully will respond in a way to show a light to others that it’s not all bad and that you can survive it.”