Sometimes the best medicine for someone battling cancer is partaking in one’s passion.
For three CHSAA coaches who were diagnosed with breast cancer, coaching was the passion that allowed them to stay strong throughout their treatment.
Of course, the medical forms of treatment were crucial to saving these coaches’ lives, but these coaches will all agree that the support they received from their players and communities has been instrumental in the improvement of their health.
The American Cancer Society reports that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Even though these numbers have decreased since the year 2000, breast cancer is still the second leading cause of death in women, exceeded only be lung cancer.
Bishop Ford H.S., Park Slope, assistant varsity basketball coach Mary Gillespie grew up attending St. Francis of Assisi parish, Flatbush, and playing basketball at Bishop McDonnell H.S., Crown Heights.
She ran the CYO basketball program at Holy Name parish, Windsor Terrace, for over 20 years and is currently in her ninth season as an assistant at Ford.
Gillespie was diagnosed with Stage-Three breast cancer in June, 1992. At the time, she had a son in eighth grade and a daughter in sixth grade.
“When I was diagnosed, it was a tremendous shock,” she said. “It was really devastating to hear the diagnosis and to think that I might not live to see them (her children) grow up.”
But after six months of chemotherapy, Gillespie was cancer-free. Throughout her treatment, she continued coordinating the Holy Name program as a way to strengthen herself mentally and physically, she said.
Just like Gillespie, Angela Proce, the athletic director, head varsity volleyball coach and assistant varsity softball coach at Bishop Loughlin M.H.S., Fort Greene, overcame breast cancer.
Originally from Richmond Hill, she attended St. Benedict Joseph Labre parish, Richmond Hill. She’s spent the last 20 years at Loughlin, with the last six as athletic director. In September, 2010, Proce was diagnosed with Stage-One breast cancer.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me,” she thought initially. “I’m in the middle of volleyball season. How is this going to affect my job? I was devastated.”
After a successful lumpectomy in October of that year, she underwent three months of chemotherapy and nearly seven weeks of radiation. At the time, she was the head varsity softball coach, but her treatment schedule that spring forced her step down from that post.
But even after the surgery and despite being physically exhausted, Proce – normally full of energy – showed up to work every day because she was doing something that she loved to do. She’s now been cancer-free for two years.
“This (coaching) was a lifesaver,” she said. “Teaching is great and being the A.D. is great, but coaching is the best.”
Christ the King R.H.S., Middle Village, assistant varsity and head junior varsity basketball coach Clare Droesch would echo Proce’s sentiments. The Rockaway Beach native was a CYO star at St. Francis de Sales parish, Belle Harbor, before bringing her basketball talents to Christ the King.
She was a guard on the Lady Royals’ team that won a national championship her freshman year. Her basketball career took off from there as she was a high school All-American and later appeared in four straight NCAA Tournaments playing for Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.
She then coached at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.; St. John’s University, Jamaica; Scholars’ Academy, Rockaway Park; and St. Edmund Prep, Sheepshead Bay.
While at St. Edmund’s in December, 2011, she received a diagnosis of Stage-Four breast cancer at the age of just 29.
“I didn’t know how to feel,” Droesch said. “I was so numb. For the first five months, I couldn’t even cry. Everyone else is crying around me, and I’m the one them patting them on the back and telling them it’s going to be all right.”
The cancer spread to her spine and her hip, and doctors predicted that she may only make it another year. However, she responded extremely well to her treatment program at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Manhattan, to the point where the cancer is now stable. Her doctors consider her a miracle and will use her treatment program on other patients.
She will receive chemotherapy treatments every three weeks for the rest of her life, but that’s a small price to pay considering what she’s endured.
“I’m going to do everything I can do to inspire other people going through what I went through,” Droesch said. “I beat the worst disease you can possibly beat, and I’m going to beat it every single day for the rest of my life.”
Gillespie reached out to both Proce and Droesch as they were going through their treatment. She’s been a survivor for 21 years and reassured the two coaches that everything would be fine.
“The hug that she (Gillespie) gave me…that meant more than any words she could say to me,” Droesch said. “It’s been 21 years, and look at her now. She’s still on the sidelines where I want to be.”
“She’s (Gillespie) always been good to me and always asks me how I feel,” Proce said. “She’s wonderful.”
These three coaches now have a platform to stress the importance to the young women in their schools that it is never too early to gain an awareness of breast cancer.
“One thing I express to them (her players) is that you can’t take life for granted,” Droesch said. “You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. You have to live everyday like it’s your last and leave it all out on the court.”