Driving through pouring rain in Baton Rouge traffic, I white-knuckled my way to meet my dear friend from high school for dinner. Trying to be timely, I arrived five minutes late and scurried inside the fancy little restaurant.
I told the hostess that I was meeting the pretty brunette. She led me into the piano bar, and there she was, my friend Holly, sitting in the corner booth with an alcohol-free, pomegranate martini and her megawatt smile. “Hey, friend,” she said as she got up to hug me. It had been years since we had seen each other, although those years were obsolete within seconds. We had so much catching up to do!
My friend, Holly Ann Hollis, also known for her reign as Cedar Creek Prom Queen 2001, recently added to her name – Holly Ann “Stars.” She has always been affectionately called “Holly Ann,” although her name was not intended to be a double name. She just has such a spirit about her, too much spunk for “Holly,” so she was dubbed Holly Ann. She now carries the last name Stars, and it fits her perfectly!
Holly Ann Stars honestly lights up a room like no one I have ever known. Not only is she a brilliant attorney, always dressed to the nines, she will also leave you in stitches with her uncanny way of finding humor in any situation. When I think of “magnetic,” I think of her. Holly Ann is super proud of her new last name and equally amazing husband, Mark, but this new name and husband came to her a bit quicker than planned.
This past May, Holly Ann was living her life to the absolute fullest. As usual, she was working out five days a week, eating clean, and making her way up the ladder as a successful attorney in Baton Rouge, while planning her wedding to the man of her dreams. Holly Ann and Mark dated several years. Both planners and dedicated to their careers, they were taking their time planning a November wedding. Holly Ann was confident that her life was on track and looking forward to the bright future ahead. She is the kind of girl who can roll with the punches but loves to over-organize. She was soaking up all the details of wedding planning, working hard, living the life she had always envisioned, and thriving. On May 8, 2018, all of her plans came to a screeching halt.
During her annual OB appointment, Holly Ann’s doctor felt a lump in her left breast and sent her for an ultrasound and mammogram. She knew by the look on her doctor’s face there was concern, but Holly Ann wasn’t nervous. There had been no history of breast cancer in her family or any cancer for that matter. That first mammogram was followed by weeks of doctor appointments and a whirlwind of testing.
After all the testing and scans, Holly Ann found herself sitting in a cold doctor’s office, her mother and fiancé by her side, with a doctor telling her the diagnosis was (metastatic) triple negative breast cancer. Because this particular cancer is so aggressive, it had spread to her lymph nodes, sternum and liver, making her diagnosis stage four. She was told that same day, statistically speaking, the odds were not in her favor to survive a diagnosis of this magnitude. Surgery was not an option, and her physicians advised that immediate, extreme, doses of chemotherapy were the only option to prolong life.
At that moment, Holly Ann decided she was not going to be a statistic; stage four, triple negative breast cancer had met its match. When exiting the doctor’s office that day, her fiancé took her hand, looked her in the eyes and said, “This is not OUR story and YOU are not a statistic. We will beat this together.”
After her diagnosis, Holly Ann struggled a bit coming to terms with her new normal, but on May 31, she received her first treatment of chemo, with a big smile, wearing a giant crab hat to cover up the non-glamorous “cool caps.” Cool caps are used as a new method to prevent hair loss in chemo patients. Only Holly Ann can make these cool caps look “cool.” She handled her first chemo treatment like a champ, making her nurses laugh with her unrivaled charm and wit.
Shortly after her second treatment, Holly Ann and Mark decided that they did not want to wait for a November wedding. They wanted to face this challenge together, as husband and wife. In just a week, they planned a small but immaculate wedding. With their families, closest friends, and two fabulous wedding gowns, Holly Ann and Mark exchanged vows on a Monday afternoon and celebrated with a reception at Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans. It was not the big soiree of their original plans, but it was more meaningful than they ever imagined. Family and friends shared toasts full of love and inspiration. Although at some points there was not a dry eye to be found, the tears were quickly followed by laughter and overwhelming joy. Holly Ann lights up when she talks about her husband, Mark, “He is my rock, and impresses me daily with his strength, compassion and humor.”
Her best friends from high school stayed in Baton Rouge after the wedding to keep her company during her third chemo treatment. They came prepared with matching “cool-cap crew” t-shirts and ‘90s rap music for the ride. Holly Ann was constantly encouraging them to “get it together” and reassuring them that she is going to beat this. When you are with Holly Ann, even chemo treatments are full of laughs.
Holly Ann is to receive eight cycles of chemotherapy, totaling sixteen chemo treatments, to be complete in early November. Throughout this process she has had a few, small bumps in the road. On two occasions, her white blood cell count and neutrophil levels have been too low to receive chemo, postponing treatments to the following week. This is typical in chemo patients and her treatments resumed as planned. The cancer was still visible on her latest PET scans, but they are less metabolic than her first scan, and that is great news! The tumors, although still in her body are considered stable. Holly Ann is still working every day, looking like she stepped off the front of a magazine cover. She continues to over-organize and shows up three times a week for her Orangetheory workout. Her perseverance totally crushes any excuse I could ever come up with for not working out. Other than the side effects of chemo, she stills feels well and displays a strength that is nothing short of remarkable.
Holly Ann had me come by her house after our three-hour dinner filled with belly laughs and fake cocktails. You would think that having dinner with your friend who had recently been diagnosed with aggressive cancer would be disheartening. Not a chance when your friend is Holly Ann.
When I arrived at her spotless home that she claimed was “messy,” I was greeted by her handsome husband Mark and their cat, Geneva. Next to their dining table, I noticed a framed map of the world completely covered in push pins. This is what she had wanted to show me, her prayer map. She and Mark had pinned each place in the world that people have been praying for her. “Do you know anyone in Africa?” she asked. “I need prayers from Africa.” During this time of uncertainty, Holly Ann was able to quickly realize that she is not fighting this battle alone. Prayers have poured in from literally all over the world, and the support for her has been resounding.
Holly Ann has been forced to take a hard look at her faith and priorities. She has learned to trust in the plan that God has for her life, and she considers that a strange but definite blessing. She refuses to believe that she will not beat this cancer, no matter how grim the statistics may look. She will quickly remind you that she is NOT a statistic. Those who know Holly Ann cannot not help but agree; cancer has indeed met its match. Holly Ann has a long road ahead, but she is fully aware and ready to fight. Admittedly she knows her battle with cancer is a far cry from “lucky,” but she is insistent that in many ways she feels “lucky” to experience this outpouring of love and support. She says, “I know that I have been dealt a bad hand with this whole ordeal, but I am lucky to have witnessed the very best that the world has to offer.”
The irony of it all: Holly Ann Stars embodies “the very best that the world has to offer” and how lucky I am to call her my friend?
By the way, she got her prayers from Africa!
Follow Holly Ann’s journey to beat breast cancer on Instagram “thestarsalign2018” and on her blog at thestarsalign2018.wordpress.com