BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR: External affairs manager aces recovery plans, finds ‘happy’ place after 3 bouts
Anya McInnis has always known Kelly Prasser to be a planner, let alone a fighter.
“Kelly is very task-oriented,” said McInnis, a communications specialist who works with Prasser on Sempra LNG projects in Port Arthur. “She likes to have plans. She approached every cancer plan like a project. I like that about her.”
Just as the two update the community on the latest industrial developments and community projects from Sempra LNG, which is constructing a Port Arthur LNG facility on Texas 87, Prasser kept her teammates in the know regarding each of her three breast cancer journeys.
“She gave us project updates,” McInnis described. “That’s just how Kelly operates. That’s how she was able to get through those.”
Prasser, Sempra’s senior manager of external affairs, doesn’t wallow in self-pity about having to fight breast cancer three times. She understands as well as anyone life doesn’t always go to plan.
“Her approach and attitude, it was never, ‘Poor me. Look at me. I have cancer,’” McInnis said. “She felt, ‘Hey, this is a little bump in my road. I’m going to take time to get over it, to take care of it, and I’ll see you on the other side of the bump.’”
The oldest of six children, Prasser grew up in Anaheim, California, and attended college at the University of California, San Diego.
“We had a small house with lots of people in it,” Prasser said. “Those were fun days. And then I built a life in San Diego.”
After a stint in radio and television journalism, Prasser had her first son Kennedy and went to work with Sempra in 1996. Kennedy is now 24, and Kelly has another son, Christian, 22.
“I raised my boys in Sempra,” she said.
She first came to Texas in 1999 to work on a project involving Cameron LNG in Hackberry, La. The company at the time was looking to develop a re-gas facility in Port Arthur. That’s also when she and McInnis first met.
By 2004, Prasser had already experienced close, personal losses to cancer.
Her mother died of lung cancer that metastasized into bone cancer. Her father died of colon cancer that spread all over his body. Both were in stage 4 at the time of their diagnoses, and died eight months to 1½ years afterward.
“I had just lost both my parents to different cancers, so I had a heightened awareness already in my family,” Prasser said. “Being I’m the oldest of six kids, I’ve become the matriarch of the family because my parents are gone.”
In September 2004, two months after her paternal grandmother moved to stay with Prasser and her family, Prasser stared down breast cancer for the first time.
“I was in the shower and just doing the normal things of cleaning and I found a lump under my arm,” she said. “I thought, you know what, that shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t there before. Given again my heightened awareness with my own parents passing from cancer — which none of them died of breast cancer — it’s like, hmmm, should I go get this checked out? And the answer was, absolutely yes. When something doesn’t feel right, and you know it’s not supposed to be there, you need to go, even if you’re nervous about what it could be.”
Prasser said so herself: The cancer fight she was about to endure was a project. She expected a beginning and end to it.
“We’re going to do what we need to do, but how do I navigate with my sons and make sure they know Mom is OK?” she remembers pondering. “I was more afraid about my kids than I was about me because my personality is such, ‘This is just a project, Kelly. Do what they tell you to do and go in and get it done.’”
Her treatment included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, or as she puts it, “the whole shebang.” She did not take time off of work.
“I do better when I’m busy,” she said. “I didn’t want to stay home. My colleagues at Sempra were instrumental.”
Her coworkers provided food and gift cards, and also organized a hat and scarf party as Prasser was dealing with hair loss. The “village” of supporters, as she called them, played an integral role in her fight.
“I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons I’m here today,” Prasser said. “It’s important to have a village behind you when you’re going through this.”
Prasser made it a point to have her checkups on a quarterly basis after successfully beating breast cancer the first time.
“If you pass the three-year mark, they graduate you to six months until you get to a yearly checkup,” she said. “I was just about to graduate to a six-month mark when they found a shadow on the other side. The first instance was on my left side. The other instance was on my right side.”
This was in October 2007. A biopsy was performed to confirm the new diagnosis.
“Heck, yeah, we’re biopsy-ing it,” Prasser thought. “We’re not taking any chances. But when they got the biopsy back, the answer was journey two, just on the other side.”
Her cancer treatment was similar to the one in 2004. As with the earlier fight, Prasser took 1½ years to win this battle.
The second cancer was the hardest out of all the three.
“I know this is going to sound strange for people to understand this,” she prefaced. “The first one was, I’m going to have the mindset to conquer. The second was, holy heck, I’m not going to get over this. This is going to be the end. I’m either going to get through this again and I’m going to keep getting it, … it’s interesting because I had such a rah-rah mentality the first time; the second time was not so much fear, knowing my personality, as it was disappointment.”
More than six years after winning her second battle, Prasser graduated to annual mammograms. She recommends others to do the same.
“I’m religious about making my appointments,” she said. “No matter what is going on, I’m not canceling it. Every person is individual and unique and has to decide what their own plan needs to be, and what works for one person may not work for another person.”
In August 2015, another shadow showed up on her mammogram.
“OK, I know the drill,” she determined.
Prasser, this time, underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. Treatment took a year to complete.
“The third year, I don’t want to say it was hard,” she said. “I got into my mind where I knew how to mitigate it. I knew how to deal with it. So, let’s not panic. Let’s not get upset. I always find it right at the beginning. I know how to clear the path and it’s all gone. I know how to deal with it. That’s why I was in a better path when I got to cancer three.”
Life in Texas
Prasser now works and lives in Texas, to be closer to the ones who gave her so much emotional support.
“I have been through all three of Kelly’s cancer fights. I’ve been there to support her,” McInnis said. “She was awe-inspiring through each one. She continued to do her job. She puts others before herself. She really was an inspiration to everyone.”
McInnis can relate to the impact cancer can have on a family. Her father is a five-year esophageal cancer survivor and her nephew, now 25, is a six-year non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor.
Today the nephew, Adam VanDeventer, is assistant director of corporate alliances in institutional affairs at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, where Prasser received her third cancer treatment.
Medical groups such as MD Anderson collaborate with doctors at California’s Scripps Health to review cancer cases such as Prasser’s, she said.
“As brilliant if not even better minds here, there’s so much being done in the area of cancer and breast cancer, especially,” Prasser said. “To see the collaboration, it’s a blessing, it’s exciting. It’s nice to know you have the best and the brightest from all over working to figure this out. The difference in the treatments I had in 2004 and 2007, and then 2015, is the progress they made just in the mitigation drugs.”
Then, there’s the mental approach.
“I think so much of it is mental, if you go into it as, I’m going to fight it and I’m not going to let it get the best of me,” McInnis said.
Prasser says she thrives better in a healthy environment. She loves the outdoors. She loves to walk. She strikes a work-life balance and limits stress.
“You need to find your happy, live there and know we have these other things we have to do — family stuff, maybe, all these other things,” Prasser said. “Where’s the balance and your happy? Spend more time in the happy.”