Kayleigh Iatarola says life is far more precious when you have to fight for it.
The 24-year-old West Dundee native and soccer player at Princeton knows this to be true because she is battling renal medullary carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer. She was diagnosed in August and had surgery the next day to remove 41 lymph nodes as well as her left kidney.
She feels fine now, but she won't know whether the cancer is gone until mid-February. That's when she's scheduled to undergo CAT and PET scans at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.
Other than surgery, there is no treatment for this type of cancer, she said.
"I do think about it every day," Iatarola said. "I think the scariest part is probably the uncertainty. You just don't know until the next scan what might show up."
Iatarola is telling her story in hopes of raising money toward her medical bills and for cancer research. She said she's raised $113,000 thus far.
Her other goals are to find a cure for her cancer, to raise awareness about it, to help other rare kidney cancer patients secure personalized medical care, and to create a forum for them to network.
Iatarola does all this through her website, www.10sfighttowin.org, which she set up about a month after her cancer diagnosis. The number 10 has been her jersey number for her entire soccer career.
When she was 5, she started playing club soccer with Sockers F.C. Chicago, based in Palatine. She earned a varsity spot on Loyola Academy's soccer team, where she played for four years.
From there, she went to Princeton University, where she played center midfield on the women's soccer team for four years and served twice as captain.
"I chose that (number) for my foundation because soccer has been and always will be an important part of my life," Iatarola said. "It ultimately taught me what it means to fight to win, and my teammates and coaches have become my family."
Iatarola graduated from Princeton in 2011 with a degree in psychology. She moved to Chicago after graduation and now works as a district manager for Wirtz Beverage. She also is enrolled in a management development program for E & J Gallo Winery.
Walter Stadler, Iatarola's doctor and section chief for hematology oncology at the University of Chicago Medicine, said there are fewer than 1,000 cases of renal medulla carcinoma diagnosed in the U.S. every year.
There's another rarity to Iatarola contracting the disease: It tends to affect black people who either have the sickle cell trait or the sickle cell disease. It also usually is more aggressive than other renal cancers, he said.
"It is also a cancer that typically does not respond to the same drugs that we use for what we call conventional renal cancer," Stadler said.
If the cancer has spread, the patient almost always succumbs to the disease, Stadler said. But if the disease is localized and patients undergo surgery, some can be cured, he said.
While Iatarola was surgically cured of the cancer as of late August, she knows she's not in the clear just yet and doctors are continuing to watch a few areas closely.
"It's going to be a battle, but it kind of makes you appreciate every single day," she said. "It's doesn't define me. It just gives me a new perspective, and the more I can take that on, I think that helps me come to terms with the diagnosis."