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Finding health, motherhood — and the strike zone

Norfolk woman "took every punch and punched back twice as hard"

For as long as Crystal Silins can remember, she has wanted to be like her mother.

Her mom taught her right from wrong and the value of hard work. She coached Crystal in sports. She was cool enough to be considered the most popular mother in town.

"She was a rock star at being a mom," recalls Silins, 33. "I always hoped to be able to pass that gift along."

But life has a way of dashing dreams.

Three years ago, Silins learned she had an aggressive form of breast cancer. Months of harsh treatments followed. She would be declared cancer-free, but doctors told her that she and her husband, Aaron, would likely never be able to conceive children.

"That was hard to hear," she says.

But Silins has handled the trials and disappointment with such courage and grace that Major League Baseball plans to honor the lifelong Orioles fan at her team's Mother's Day game Sunday against the Oakland Athletics at Camden Yards.

The Honorary O's Bat Girl for 2016, she'll throw out the ceremonial first pitch — and discuss her fight against cancer — as part of a slate of activities planned for the day.

The first 10,000 women at the ballpark will receive black-and-orange scarves. Hundreds of moms will play catch on the field before the game. Players from both teams will wear pink-trimmed jerseys and caps and swing pink bats — gear that will be auctioned for charity.

Given what she has been through, it might seem surprising that Silins — a cybersecurity analyst and Navy veteran who now lives in Norfolk, Va. — was nervous this week as she thought about tossing a baseball in front of a Mother's Day crowd.

A longtime softball player, she says the illness and treatments sapped enough of her arm strength that she's not sure she can make the throw across the plate.

Then she thinks of her mother, who still tells her to work hard to make the best of every situation.

"I've been practicing," Silins says with a laugh.

It was seven years ago that Major League Baseball decided to step up its involvement in the fight against breast cancer.

The disease will be diagnosed in nearly 250,000 American women and claim more than 40,000 lives in the United States this year alone, according to the American Cancer Society.

Baseball has long used Mother's Day as an occasion to showcase the cause. Players have worn pink ribbons, and used custom-made pink bats — hundreds of them provided by Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of the Louisville Slugger — for more than a decade.

Orioles spokesman Greg Bader said women make up an indispensable portion of the team's fan base, and that it only makes sense to show appreciation while spreading the word about a major women's health concern.

MLB began its Going to Bat Against Breast Cancer initiative in 2009, setting aside $50,000 a year for the breast cancer research and advocacy group Susan G. Komen, partnering with that organization and Stand Up to Cancer, and working with major league teams to offer Mother's Day programs.

One aspect is the Honorary Bat Girl initiative, in which a panel of judges, including major league players who have a personal interest in fighting the disease, join with fans voting online to select a breast cancer survivor from each team's geographical region.

The winners' stories, according to guidelines, should "provide hope and motivation in the fight against breast cancer" and "demonstrate a commitment to breast-cancer awareness."

This year's judges included fitness instructor Jillian Michaels, New York Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson, Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and Orioles starting pitcher Kevin Gausman, whose grandmother died of breast cancer after a long struggle with the disease.

They could scarcely have come up with a more apt honoree for the Orioles than Silins, who grew up in tiny Fairfield, Pa., just north of Emmitsburg, the only child of Charlie and Colleen Koski.

A strong student and committed athlete, Crystal Koski seemed born with a cheerful outlook.

That was reinforced by her father, a computer programmer who taught her that nothing good comes without hard work. Her mother, a machine operator in the printing business, coached her in field hockey and softball, rarely missed a school event and often sat her down to tell her there's a bright side to everything, no matter the challenge.

She carried the attitude into an eight-year career in the Navy, for which she used her computer skills in information security.

"I like to keep the bad guys out of the networks," Crystal says.

While stationed in Norfolk, Va., she met a young master-at-arms, Aaron Silins. The fell in love and soon realized they had a mutual interest in having a family — soon.

They married in 2011, and began working on the goal.

The plan didn't last long.

When the Silins had trouble conceiving, they kept trying. Crystal suffered a miscarriage, and they continued on.

But when she found a lump on her breast just before Christmas 2012, the equation changed radically.

Her doctor identified an aggressive, malignant tumor about 3 centimeters across, its cells multiplying rapidly.

As surgery loomed, she made jokes — "I'm just getting a boob job," she told Aaron and her friends — but it didn't keep him from pacing, or both from sobbing.

Silins opted for the most radical first step, but the one likeliest to prevent recurrence: a bilateral mastectomy, which doctors at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia performed in January.

She allowed herself one private cry, then helped Aaron plan a head-shaving party. Nine friends attended, many shearing their locks in support.

Her "super strong network" kept her going through 16 weeks of chemotherapy that brought nausea, baldness and a medically induced form of menopause, complete with hot flashes.

Then came 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by two months of radiation therapy — less painful than chemo, theoretically, but it caused necrosis, a condition that leaves the skin burned, blistered and often black. Nine reconstructive surgeries followed.

Doctors told her that some of the life-saving drugs could radically reduce fertility. Silins lacked the energy to worry. She was too busy focusing on the positive: the strength she had to take walks, the return of "peach fuzz" on her head in September and, finally, the doctors' declaration in June 2014 that she was cancer-free.

She still takes hormones and visits physicians, but she's back at work, does CrossFit training, runs obstacle courses, keeps tabs on the O's and their Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, the Tides, and often tells friends about breast cancer.

When Aaron Silins learned of the MLB contest, he thought about how much his wife loved the game and applied on her behalf.

"Crystal took every punch and punched back twice as hard," he wrote in the application. "I would love nothing more than to give her the opportunity to be a bat girl for … the Baltimore Orioles on Mother's Day!"

Go to honorarybatgirl.com and you can read Aaron's piece, along with 29 other inspiring tales.

From Elizabeth Haffner, a grandmother of 13 from Seattle, to second-grade teacher Mayra Ordiales of Miami, the winners are described by loved ones variously as a "warrior for the fight," "a superhero" who "kicks butt," an "an angel with an unbelievable story of hope for others."

Crystal is the only one who says she's grateful for her disease.

One of the first things she did after she was declared cancer-free was to team with her husband to pursue adoption. They knew the process could take two years and consume much of their savings, but they were determined to fulfill their dream.

Seven months later, an agency matched them with a newborn from Crystal's home state of Pennsylvania. Brianna Silins, now 17 months old, has changed their lives in ways they say they still have trouble describing.

Crystal can't stop taking pictures of the "crazy" 2-foot toddler, who will join her parents at Sunday's game. Aaron says it's too much attention, but he can't stop doting, either.

Crystal's parents live two hours away and visit often.

The child has put Crystal's trials into perspective.

"I say this, and people think I'm crazy, but if it weren't for all the garbage I went through, we wouldn't have this little girl in our lives," she says. "I'm truly thankful."

Her goals for the next few years, she says, are to get off hormone therapy, enlarge the family if possible, and share with her daughter the kind of love Silins' mother has always shown her.

Like throwing a strike on Mother's Day, it may not be easy. But she has to think it's possible.

"My mother always instilled in me that there is a bright side to everything, no matter the obstacles," she says.

"I believe it."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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