By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
When Nancy Walsh discovered she had Stage 3 breast cancer in mid-August, she treated it as you would expect of a veteran coach.
“God is the head coach. Mother Cabrini is the associate head coach.
“My management team consists of my guardian angel and the doctors who’ll will treat me. My co-captains are Mary Cordero and Janelle Bozant. I consider myself the point guard, and my teammates are the players, family, friends and fans in the stand.”
That sounds like a championship team to me.
“The players have been amazing since I told them about (the cancer),” Walsh said. “They’re like my teammates because they’re getting me through this. That’s the reason I get up for 5:45 practice every morning. If the kids are going to be here, then I want to be with them.”
Walsh came to Cabrini from the tough south side of Chicago via the University of New Orleans where she was an assistant women’s basketball coach under Joey Favaloro.
A unique individual as a teacher, she teaches five outdoor sports – fishing, canoeing, kayaking, golf and, most recently, archery.
“I consider mine the most important class because I’m getting the girls outdoors. They are learning that they can tackle their fears,” she said.
“If they don’t want to put a worm on a hook, I don’t make them. But when they see other kids catching fish (mostly in City Park’s ‘big lake’), they get over it.”
And Walsh has little fear of her mortality.
After years of neglecting her own health, the 52-year-old former three-sport standout discovered “something wasn’t right” during a self-examination.
“On Aug. 27, I had a mammogram and ultrasound, and met the surgeon. After the ultrasound, the doctor told me, ‘Well, you have breast cancer, and it’s spread to the lymph nodes under your right arm.’
“A resident told me she wanted to take a biopsy. I insisted on seeing the surgeon and wanted to have a game plan to know what’s ahead of me; what I’m dealing with.”
The surgeon told Walsh the cancer appeared to be Stage 3. After evaluating the ultrasound, the doctor wanted to begin chemotherapy treatments quickly, telling Walsh that the cancer seemed to be growing rapidly.
Two former Cabrini teachers and coaches, Cordero and Bozant, accompanied Walsh to the biopsy. Both are cancer survivors.
“They hand-walked me through this because both of them had Stage 4 cancer in different parts of their bodies,” Walsh said.
“I’m taking strength from them and their strong faith, and I’m rolling with it right now.”
Walsh knows the power of prayer.
“My world has been flipped upside down, but I think it has flipped for the better.
“When this happened, I was praying for three things in my life,” she said.
The first was a physical makeover. She laughed, “Be careful what you wish for because now that I lost my hair, I look like a boy,” although she doesn’t.
Secondly, she wanted to understand the meaning of her life.
“I wanted my life to be worth something besides just being a coach. People don’t appreciate coaches anymore.
“But since the school year began, people have been coming out of the woodwork to say they love me. If this wouldn’t have happened, I would have never heard those words.”
Walsh’s third wish, in the form of a prayer, was “Lord, if you need me to be a messenger; if my life is to have some meaning and I need to deliver a message, I’ll do whatever you want.”
The coach admits she had what she described as a wonderful life, thanks to basketball.
“ For 52 years I’ve been able to go anywhere I wanted, eat anything I wanted, take on challenges, and make and overcome mistakes. So my philosophy was quantity over quality,” Walsh said.
“My parents will be married 66 years in December. So my stupid philosophy was, I’m healthy, so I’m going to take care of them now. Then I’ll take care of myself.
“I think about young mothers who have that same philosophy that I’ll take care of myself when my children are grown and push my life aside for now.
“I didn’t get mammograms. My last physical was two years ago.”
Walsh added, “I had the opportunity to go to Wyoming on a teachers’ wildlife educational tour, for which I needed to take a physical.
“I told the doctor, ‘Naw, I’d rather live my life out and die of a heart attack.’ I saw what Miss Cordero and Miss Bozant went through, and I thought I don’t want to live my life like that.”
Message of life
Walsh’s self-neglect became a grim reality. But she learned that she doesn’t have to fight this battle alone.
“I pray to Mother Cabrini every day that if I can help one mother by telling her to get that check-up early and take care of themselves for the people who love them.”
During her most recent follow-up with her doctor, Walsh said something unusual occurred.
“This cancer is supposed to be about seven and a half centimeters. But the doctor said she couldn’t feel it.
“‘This isn’t normal,” the doctor told me. Maybe it’s there, but I can’t feel it, so I don’t know what’s going on there.’”
Walsh replied, “I know what’s going on. It’s all these people praying for me. It’s Mother Cabrini, and it’s God, and it’s this place, the school.”
Surgery is still scheduled during the first week of January during the heart of Cabrini’s basketball schedule.
“When I informed the players of my situation I told them, ‘I’ll need you, especially the seniors, to be strong.’
“God knows what he’s doing, so I’m in good hands. I want my seniors to have a good year and learn that they are tougher than they may think,” Walsh said.
She will have coaches come in to lead the team in her absence. She will also have her spiritual team leading her to a personal victory.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.