"A breast cancer diagnosis takes you to a place that you cannot know unless you have been there," said Rutgers University Women's Basketball Coach C. Vivian Stringer. "Hearing the word cancer is like experiencing the death of a loved one."
Coach Stringer holds many titles – mother, sister, daughter, widow, and inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame. She is also a breast cancer survivor of almost 20 years and now, decades after her cancer journey began, she is a powerful voice of strength and hope within the breast cancer community.
Born a coal miner's daughter and raised in a town where people rarely traveled further than 50 miles, Coach Stringer became the first head coach ever to catapult three different college programs – Pennsylvania's Cheyney University, University of Iowa and Rutgers University – from underdogs to the Final Four.
But Coach Stringer's professional triumphs have continued to be eclipsed by personal tragedy. The year Cheyney went to the Final Four, her daughter's childhood meningitis was misdiagnosed, leaving her with special needs. Her husband's sudden death of a heart attack occurred the same year she took Iowa to the Final Four.
In June 1998, Coach Stringer was diagnosed with breast cancer. Prior to her diagnosis, Coach Stringer missed out on two years of breast exams as she transitioned to her new role as head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Her past experiences with nodules always turned out to be benign and she just didn't give herself the focus she needed.
"At first I was so angry," she said of her diagnosis. "I was angry at my body, and I felt like I had betrayed myself."
Coach Stringer went on to feel fortunate that she was put in the hands of great doctors, and committed nurses, scientists, and researchers, like Gary Freedman, MD Dr. Freedman is a breast radiation-oncologist at Penn Medicine's Roberts Proton Therapy Center.
"Over the years, Dr. Freedman has become a friend. He was patient, caring, and detailed with a dedicated focus on the work that needed to be done in order to get me well. His care wasn't predicated on who I was or what I did, but that I was a person – scared just like anyone else."
After her diagnosis, Coach Stringer's first oncologist recommended she have a double mastectomy. But she was never convinced that the probability of recurrence with a double mastectomy was less than without the surgery — so she opted to keep her breasts.
"During my journey, I learned to utilize my resources, and that I didn't have to accept a first diagnosis. It is so important for women to learn about their disease so they can better advocate for their health," Coach Stringer said. "The most important thing to remember is that everyone has to make their own choices."
Keeping it a secret
Coach Stringer decided to keep her disease from the press and the public and initially did not tell her children, mother, or her team about her diagnosis — and only shared the news with her sisters, her assistant coaches, and the RU athletic director. Her sisters took time off of work to accompany her to her radiation treatments that took place after basketball practices.
"I remember sitting in the waiting room for my radiation treatment," she said. "I remember looking at all the people who were wondering the same thing I was, how was it all going to end, but also being frightened to death about knowing the news, good or bad."
Fortunately, she received solace from an unlikely source— a complete stranger who had experienced breast cancer. Lonni was a friend of a friend who lived thousands of miles away, who Coach Stringer began speaking with every night after her diagnosis.
It was only during those long, nightly phone calls with Lonni that Coach Stringer could let go and really talk about what she was going through.
"Though we never met before, I felt like I really knew this woman," Coach Stringer said. "Speaking to someone who had experienced what I was going through lifted my spirits, and she got me involved in outreach and education."
Coach Stringer slowly began telling her inner circle about her experience. When the mother of one of her players was diagnosed, Coach Stringer wanted to share, to tell her to have faith and that everything would be okay, but she just wasn't ready yet. But when another member of the team was touched by breast cancer, she knew she could no longer remain silent.
Sharing her story
Now Coach Stringer has shared her story with the world, both on the Oprah Winfrey Show and through her autobiography, titled Standing Tall: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph. She has found strength in helping others overcome the difficult moments in their lives, as she was helped all those years ago, by inspiring them with her story.
"Terrible things will happen. But we must remember that there is a reason, and while we might not know it, we are strong enough to handle it and provide a message of hope to others," she said. "I am comforted in knowing that things are getting better, but we are not going to eradicate this disease unless we all kick in and do our part."
Not only has Coach Stringer become a pioneer in women's sports, but she's also become an inspiration to cancer survivors everywhere.
For more information on how to support breast cancer research and patient care please contact Laura Ferraiolo by email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 215-746-2948, or click here to make a gift.