Vahe Gregorian

Love buoys Jackie Stiles against cancer and gives her new purpose

Jackie Stiles on how she is coping with cancer

Jackie Stiles, one of the best to ever plays women’s college basketball, has ocular melanoma. Her fight has been helped by an outpouring of love.
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Jackie Stiles, one of the best to ever plays women’s college basketball, has ocular melanoma. Her fight has been helped by an outpouring of love.

Jackie Stiles became a sensation across the nation after she materialized out of tiny Claflin, Kan., (population 624) to lead Missouri State to the 2001 Final Four and become the career leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball – a record that stood until last year.

But what really made that time incomparable was her joy for the game and radiant spirit, traits you can feel to this day in her grace and humility and the way she constantly smiles as she talks.

So she calls herself “the underachiever in the family” — given that her brother, P.J., is a surgeon, her sister Roxanne is in residency to do the same and her brother, Corey, is an accountant and basketball official — and she is apt to make others feel much more important than she is.

Just like always. Whether it was indulging the excitable young girls who sought a moment or an autograph or a photo or granting more solemn requests such as the dying wish of a Lady Bears fan: to meet her.

Sure, it was hard being in the room, holding hands with the family during their anguish, but it also was her pleasure to do it.

“I hope I just maybe gave some comfort and peace,” she said, recalling a scene from years ago that speaks to her prevailing view: “We all go through adversity, and we all go through tough times, and if you can brighten somebody’s day with whatever it is, why not, you know?”

No wonder, then, what happened when word got out in January that she had ocular melanoma. The rare form of eye cancer is fatal in about 50 percent of the instances in which it metastasizes, and the future of the vision in her left eye is in jeopardy.

In her time of need, some 300 text messages arrived in the first flurry. Calls came from the likes of Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin, the former Missouri State coach and a cancer survivor, and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley.

Before a game in Springfield, she was blown away to see that former Bears coach and current Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson had his team wear T-shirts that read, “Fight, Pray, Love” with STILES and No. 10 on the back.

That was the trickle before a deluge of cards, letters, geometrically more texts, emails, care packages, infinite social media posts, pledges of financial support and countless prayers.

The phenomenon made a profound difference for Stiles. She might have sheepishly suspected before that she was well-liked, but now she is sustained by being loved in ways she never would have guessed.

Almost tangibly so: Just before she entered surgery for radiation treatment at St. Luke’s in St. Louis, she asked her doctor, Brad Smith, to pose alongside her bed for a picture of her covered in cards and letters and other gifts.

“I felt every one of those prayers and that’s why I wasn’t scared, because I knew they were all with me,” she said Monday in her assistant coach’s office at Missouri State.

One way or another, she was continuously surrounded by warmth and goodwill — starting with the doctors, including radiation oncologist Jason Edwards, and nurses she can never thank enough.

She recuperated on a pillow case from the basketball team back in Claflin, the words “Stiles Strong” stitched in it. Every time she woke up, she looked at a photo signed by the entire school. And then there was the spark that came from her mom and dad and Jackie reading aloud the mail that came from every corner of the country.

“They were just phenomenal. It just helped so much,” she said. “I know I’ll never be able to pay it back, but I’m definitely going to try to pay it forward.”

Her way forward is uncertain, though, even after a recent checkup revealed the tumor is shrinking and cancer cells have been reduced.

(And even considering that she somehow ran 25 miles in a Relay For Life event last month after being asked to be honorary chair. She had figured on a mere 80 laps/20 miles but then was so “touched and inspired” by everyone there that she thought … why not 100 laps to raise more money for the cause?)

While the treatment for a tumor on her optic nerve went as well as could be hoped for, Stiles said, she has 20-70 vision and the sight in her left eye will continue to erode. More broadly, she is due for a full-body scan in August and will continue to get those every six months to see if the cancer spread – something she has been told typically can’t be known for 1-3 years.

This much she knows, though:

“One thing that a cancer diagnosis teaches you is just to be really present and make the most of each and every day, because that’s truly all you’re promised,” she said. “So I’m never going to complain about anything. I’m going to enjoy every minute, the good and the bad.”

Tested as she might be: In a follow-up phone conversation Friday, she apologized for not calling back sooner. Turned out she’d been tied up with having her gallbladder removed after feeling sudden intense pain on Tuesday.

It’s unrelated to the cancer, she believes, and as of Saturday she was working out as she texted to say she felt better and expected she’d be able to do the recruiting work she planned for Sunday.

While her capacity for exercise is something few could follow, her attitude might be more relatable and advisable. The cancer is always a little in the back of her mind, naturally, but she also says, “I try not to waste any energy worrying about it.”

That approach started during her week in the hospital, draining as it was. The procedure entailed doctors snipping a ligament in the eye to stretch it out of the way – something she calls fascinating as she shows you the jarring picture – and placing a radiation plaque on the tumor for a week before removing it.

“A lot of times (for cancer) they do radiation a couple minutes for a month; well, this was 24 hours a day for seven straight days,” she said. “So it was brutal. It was rough. Just made me sick.”

Even so, she had an exercise bicycle brought into her room and got on in the final days of her stay. It didn’t immediately go as planned. The first time she hopped on, she instantly crashed because it wasn’t rigged up right to the stand.

“I was just like, ‘Really?’” she said, recalling that she instantly laughed and reassured medical staff she was fine.

Then, just over a day after being released, she went back to work.

“It helped me heal a lot quicker, not sitting there dwelling on anything; I went to do what I knew was normal,” she said, adding, “And just being around the girls, how can you not be in a good mood around them?”

A few days later after wearing a “miserable” eye patch for one game, she ditched it — along with what she calls “this stupid pink pirate patch” she put over it to dress it up.

Her laughter over things like that represents something more telling: She doesn’t say “why me?”; she says she’s thankful for the opportunity she has to inspire and help people and raise awareness of ocular melanoma (and the Ocular Melanoma Foundation) — of which she knew nothing before being diagnosed.

In fact, she might not have known yet if not for a random twist that led her to check out nagging vision problems she thought might be related to needing a Lasik touchup. She had the procedure in 2003, which also was the last time she had her eyes examined.

Since Stiles hadn’t clicked vision coverage on insurance, she pondered waiting to add the coverage and get examined next year. But something told her to give it more consideration, so she did what she often does with decisions small and little: She flipped a coin, two out of three, for “go to a doctor, don’t go to a doctor.”

“I always say the coin never misguides me,” said Stiles, who, in fact, used that process in part to choose Missouri State over Connecticut.

Now it’s guided her to a place where as a public figure and face of the rare disease she can do for others in a wholehearted new way.

She now preaches keeping up with eye examinations, and she’s spoken with numerous people who either are getting ready to receive the treatment or are further along than she is.

Now she thinks about how much more she can do, including one of the things she hates — speaking events. “It’s like torture; I’d rather do a root canal with no numbing medicine,” she said.

More to her liking, she’s had talks about putting together a virtual 5K, called Stiles Strong, and she is checking out how to get involved with Coaches Vs. Cancer and exploring starting her own charitable foundation.

After all, another way she appreciates her fortune is that she knows few could have people raise more than $50,000 on their behalf as Central Plains High in Claflin did for her.

Since her treatment was out of her insurance network, bills still are coming in. But she expects she’ll be able to pay them and have extra money with which to help others in dire situations.

None of this is what she would have asked for when her WNBA playing career ended prematurely after numerous injuries and surgeries and she struggled to find herself.

“I had to grieve; that was like a death,” she said. “It was such a huge part of me.”

But entering her sixth year back at her alma mater, she has found fulfillment through her work. And, now, even amid more grieving, she has found something more altogether.

As a player, she always wanted to give fans something to cheer about “because they cared so much.”

More than she ever knew until now, pushing her through some of her darkest days and on to a new way to try to lend comfort and peace.

“I’m grateful for the platform,” she said. “And I just want to use it to continue to help people.”

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