Missouri college coach aims to inspire after facing cancer
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — She felt sick. She regretted having the surgery. She couldn’t imagine getting out of bed.
The legendary athlete was isolated, unsure how well she’d recover.
But still, Jackie Stiles was determined to win. Including all her accomplishments on the court, this one away — from the hardwood — might be her best.
This feat can’t be quantified in points and likely won’t result in a banner hanging from the JQH Arena rafters.
Stiles is again inspiring many around the country as she takes on perhaps her most difficult opponent yet: cancer.
Missouri State announced Jan. 7 the Lady Bears legend and assistant coach was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare form of eye cancer, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
Stiles returned to the Lady Bears bench on Feb. 11 after undergoing surgery on Feb. 2.
In a recent sit-down with the News-Leader, Stiles admitted she still has some fear for her life as she recovers. Her vision will continue to decrease for the remainder of her days.
Until the recent interview, Stiles hadn’t talked in-depth about the experience she hopes will inspire and help many across the country.
At practice, the former all-time scoring leader in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history was struggling to see the ball when it came toward her. Her depth perception was off, but she didn’t choose to have vision insurance so she thought she should maybe delay going to the doctor for a year.
But Stiles decided to leave her decision up to chance like she does with every tough decision. A coin flip helped her decide to attend Southwest Missouri State over UConn and Kansas State.
Like every time before, the method didn’t let her down. The coin told her to go to the doctor.
Stiles — who is going into her sixth year as an assistant coach at her alma mater — thought the appointment would lead to her needing contacts or a touchup on the LASIK surgery she received 10 years before, but instead, she was told she had a rare form of cancer she had never heard of before.
“It’s such a rare form of cancer that I was in complete shock,” Stiles said. “I obviously didn’t think this was something serious.”
Stiles is still recovering from ocular melanoma, which was discovered by doctors in December. The decision that was left up to chance ended up leading to eye surgery and helped the legendary Lady Bear inspire many across the country.
The form of cancer is a tumor that grows in the middle layer of the eye between the white part of the eye and the retina. The cancer happens in fewer than 3,000 people per year, with symptoms including blurred vision, flashing lights and darkness in vision.
After the initial shock, Stiles’ first thought was about her team. She didn’t want to distract from their experience at Missouri State, but she knew she had to tell them before they heard it from someone else.
When the Lady Bears returned from Christmas break — on the same day Audrey Holt told the team she was ending her career due to concussions — Stiles told the team she had cancer.
“I was just so supported by them,” Stiles said. “It was a very tearful meeting. It was all kind of a blur.”
Days later, the support would become overwhelming.
Before the Lady Bears game on Jan. 7, Missouri State announced Stiles wouldn’t be on the sideline for a few games as she underwent treatment.
The announcement turned into an outpouring of encouragement for the basketball icon.
She couldn’t check her phone — it had over 300 unread messages. Stiles doesn’t look at social media often, but she couldn’t escape the hundreds of notifications.
“I was so touched,” Stiles said. “I can’t put into words what it meant for so many people to come to my aid with cards, text messages, financial support. I was blown away.”
Support — of both love and money — came from the tiny town of Claflin, Kansas.
“I wouldn’t be the person I was if it wasn’t for where I grew up,” Stiles said. “I truly believe that.”
Students at Central Plains High School in her hometown organized an online fundraiser to help pay for Stiles’ medical costs that weren’t covered by her insurance. The St. Louis surgery specialist that treated Stiles is out of her insurance network, meaning Stiles will likely have to pay about 40 percent of the medical costs on her own.
The fundraiser brought in over $50,000.
When the day of her Feb. 2 surgery approached, Stiles was nervous.
She didn’t know how her quality of life would be after the surgery or how good her vision would be when she woke up.
People reached out from across the country. Since Stiles was one of the more recognizable people to have the rare form of cancer, some wanted to share how they lost loved ones to the disease.
“There were a lot of scary things I was dealing with,” Stiles said.
Stiles admits she was in fear for her life and her vision then, and it’s still in the back of her mind now.
Every six months she has full body scans and hopes the cancer didn’t metastasize to her liver like it does in half the people who have the disease.
“You just never know,” Stiles said. “It’s usually 1-5 years before that happens. Hopefully, I’m one of the ones where it doesn’t metastasize and I’m good to go.”
Although Stiles had many surgeries after her SMS playing days, she didn’t know what to expect from a procedure on her eye.
She knew the surgeons were going to snip a ligament and stretch her eye out of her head. The surgeons would sew in a radiation plaque that fits on the tumor before putting her eye back where it belongs. After seven days in isolation, doctors would do the same thing, except they would remove the plaque.
The seven days in isolation were difficult.
For anyone who knows Stiles, keeping her down isn’t the easiest thing to do.
She can’t go a day without a workout, so she made a request that made her even more popular to those on her hospital floor. She told her mom to bring her bicycle in.
“That is the one thing I have to do every single day to feel right,” Stiles said. “No one had ever brought in a bike and put it on a trainer before.”
The first few days, however, Stiles wasn’t feeling up to riding her bike.
She didn’t feel well. She’s had surgeries in the past, but nothing made her feel like this.
The one thing that got her through didn’t end up being the bike. It was the hundreds of letters of support she received from across the country.
“It was so touching to hear all of that when I was so sick,” Stiles said with tears in her eyes. “It really just lifted my spirits.”
Stiles and her mom sat in her hospital room and read every single letter.
Letters ranged from people she coached during basketball camps to others suffering from the same disease. The letters inspired Stiles to keep fighting.
She wasn’t down long as she quickly went from the hospital to the sideline.
With a patch on her left eye, Stiles returned to a loud JQH Arena crowd on Feb. 11. She thought the patch was annoying and she’s happy to not be wearing it anymore — it made rebounding during practices difficult.
And no, the former all-time scoring leader never tried shooting with the patch on, and she’ll limit her basketball playing appearances to playing pickup games with her family back home.
Getting back to work helped Stiles recover more quickly and also helped remind her to not take anything for granted.
She’s back to living her normal life — working out in the mornings and being a Lady Bear assistant coach by day.
Still, the experience has changed her outlook on life. She realizes she’s been blessed and has been able to travel, see the world and meet a lot of people because of basketball. But now she’s thinking of what she wants to do next.
“When you’re diagnosed with a rare cancer that’s potentially life-threatening, you look at your life and think, ‘Hey, is there anything I haven’t done that I wanted to do?’” Stiles said.
Stiles wants to spend more time with her family and even have a little Jackie of her own someday.
Although she’s not the biggest fan of speaking engagements, she’s going to put up with them as she attempts to spread her story and help others. Doing something nice for someone every day while empowering and inspiring others has turned into her mission statement.
Medical bills are still coming in but have been taken care of due to the financial support she has received. Any extra money will be donated to other people experiencing costly medical issues.
Stiles still feels like there is something she wants to be a part of, whether it’s starting her own foundation or contributing more to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation.
A recent checkup resulted in good news: the tumor is shrinking and there are fewer cancer cells than before.
Her vision is at 20/70, which is the best it will be. In about five years, it will decline. She’s just happy it didn’t happen during her playing days.
Stiles remembers a man who got his eye checked because he read an article about her. The man was experiencing blurred vision and was ultimately diagnosed with ocular melanoma.
It was at that moment Stiles realized everything she was doing too was for a reason. She wants to continue to be an inspiration as she helps others for the rest of her life.
“Right then and there, I realized it was all worthwhile,” Stiles said. “We’re not promised anything other than today. I swear I will never take things for granted.”
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com