The first abnormal mammogram appeared last September, just as Tracy Bertoncin was beginning her first year as an assistant principal at Lee’s Summit High School. The diagnosis followed in mid-October.
Breast cancer. At the most inopportune time imaginable.
“I’m not going to lie; there was probably a little bit of why this happened to me? Can I do this?” Bertoncin said. “I just had a real heart-to-heart with myself, talked a lot with my family, said a lot of prayers.”
Almost a year later, Bertoncin finds herself cancer-free and embarking on another new job, one that would tax even the heathiest of people. Last spring she was selected as Lee’s Summit’s athletic director, taking over for Chad Hertzog, who was named the new principal at Lee’s Summit West High School. She has no doubts about being up to the task, and no one else around here does either.
“The doctors are telling me now that it’s gone and I have a few minor things left to do in the next year,” Bertoncin said. “As a cancer survivor, your life doesn’t ever go back to the same. You develop a new normal, but my new normal is not anything that would prevent me from doing a great job here.”
The diagnosis waylaid some well-laid plans Bertoncin had made the year before, when she stepped down after 16 years as the Tigers’ head softball coach. After 318 victories, several conference and district championships and back-to-back Class 4 state titles in 2013 and 2014, she was ready to move up to administration. Leaving softball would give her time to see her daughter Dorothy, an all-state goalkeeper for the Tigers who graduated in 2016, play soccer for Colorado-Colorado Springs.
“I used to think I had control of my life,” Bertoncin said. “Now I know I don’t.”
What followed instead were grueling rounds of chemotherapy and surgeries that made her miss a day of work each week. A significant infection put her in the hospital for a week and she struggled to cope with her waning stamina.
But Bertoncin did find strength in her family as well as an overwhelming support group of former players and students. She was showered with cards, gifts and text messages. Former softball moms formed a group that drove her to chemo treatments. Last year’s varsity players designed and sold T-shirts within 10 days of her diagnosis.
Bertoncin is donating the money raised by those shirts to the Stephanie Vest Foundation, a non-profit organization that offers financial help to families fighting cancer. She will do it after running in their 5-kilometer race this fall.
“The support system I’ve found myself wrapped in has changed my heart,” Bertoncin said. “It was overwhelming to me the number of people that reached out to me and supported me in hundreds of ways. It gave meaning not to cancer and not to me, but it gave meaning to what I’ve done in my career in the last 25 years.”
Bertoncin had no hesitation about taking on another new job, even as she was still fighting the disease. Her family certainly didn’t, especially her son, Louie.
“He said, ‘Mom, why would you let cancer beat you?’” Bertoncin said. “You won’t let anybody else beat you, why would you let cancer? And I thought that’s an excellent point.
“I’ve had so many of the staff members and the family members contact me and just say I’m so proud of you, I’m so happy for you, you’re the right person for this job and as you wrap up your treatments for cancer please know that we’re here to support you.”
Bertoncin still has one more surgery left, but “the big stuff” - the chemo and major surgeries – are all behind her. She’s still not a full strength, but she feels more than strong enough to guide an athletic department that means even more to her than it did before. As a former coach and longtime presence at the school, she brings plenty of expertise and knowledge to the job.
But she also brings something else, something that she said going through cancer has given her: Perspective. When dealing with students who run afoul of the rules and fear their lives are ruined, that can be a pretty powerful thing.
“It’s not a diagnosis of cancer. You’re not paralyzed,” Bertoncin said. “This has not changed you forever; actually it may even make you better. And when you’re sitting there with no hair and having gone through chemo treatments, how do you argue with that logic?”