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How Duke Basketball Has Helped Me Fight Cancer

To all my readers who love to hate Duke, you're going to have to put your misguided beliefs aside and open your minds and hearts. I thank you in advance. Alright, I'll begin. 

Simply put, Duke Basketball has helped me fight cancer, and will help me fully annihilate it in the coming months. Allow me to explain.

Duke Basketball -- specifically, the men's basketball program with brilliant coach and leader, Coach K, at the helm --  is founded on a few key principles: hard work, tenacity, heart, trusting your team, and being a leader. If you re-read those key principles, you'll quickly see why those very things are exactly what I need to be armed with during this battle I'm waging with cancer. Let's review.

Hard work

Beating cancer ain't just about great doctors and a good attitude and letting the chips fall where they may. Recuperating from surgery quickly by forcing myself to walk down those hospital hallways and eat when I didn't feel like it, building my body back up after surgery with good food and careful exercise, drinking tons of water all the time, reading books and educating myself about the new ways in which I'll need to live going forward...achieving these goals takes hard work.

So does winning four National Championships, too many ACC Tournament Championships to count, etc.  But Duke Basketball achieves more than just those tangible accolades. Year after year, Duke Basketball manages to be a force: a team that excels, but excels more than as a mere collection of great players and coaches, but as a functional unit, a well-oiled machine. The level of greatness that Duke Basketball has managed to maintain for decades is not dumb luck: it requires massive amounts of hard work by each player and coach.


Tenacity: otherwise known as mental toughness. We all know why this is important for a team -- especially a team that deals with as many jeers as the Duke Blue Devils -- but it's also essential in a cancer beatdown. Back to Duke for a second, though. Every basketball team relishes the opportunity to "Beat Duke" and to be able to brag, all season long (and maybe for multiple seasons), that one day back in such and such month and in such and such year, they "Beat Duke." Students storm the court when their team beats Duke, no matter what...even if the game has no bearing on either team's ultimate chances at a division or National Championship. Knocking off Duke is an achievement. As a result, the Blue Devils need to be mentally tough, prepared to take any team's best shot, and to stay focused on their own game regardless of how fired up their nemesis may be.

This is exactly what it's like to take on cancer. At Stage IV, you know this cancer has given me its best shot. And I'm looking it dead in the eye, unphased, focused on my game, and ready to trounce it. Like Jason Williams slapping the floor, relishing the opportunity to defend his basket despite playing all-out for 38 minutes straight, I, too, slap the floor, excited and ready for whatever comes my way, knowing that I've got the mental toughness to stick to my plan and emerge victorious. 


Related to tenacity, heart is the more personal of the two strains of mental toughness, the part of you that says "I can do this because I believe in myself and I know I've got it in me to succeed." My two favorite Duke Basketball players of all time: Bobby Hurley and Nolan Smith, have tons of heart. These guards are not the biggest or the strongest guys on the court, but are incredibly talented and demonstrate a ton of heart. They have heart because, regardless of the bumps and bruises they've had to endure (Nolan's collision that resulted in a concussion during the Maryland game a couple of years ago still makes me cringe), they are fighters. When you watch them, you can see the fire in their eyes. They are out to win and they believe in themselves and their team, regardless of the circumstances. Not shockingly, both led their teams to National Championships.

Like my favorite Duke players, I've got heart, too. I believe that, no matter the odds and regardless of the pain I might have to endure, I will fight and I will win this battle. It's hard to describe the confidence I feel in the simple fact that I will win, but it's a calm confidence, an inner strength that has been there from the moment I learned of my diagnosis. 

Trusting Your Team

There are times, during any basketball game, that you have to pass the ball and trust your teammate to do the right thing. Always, on defense, you have to trust your teammates to focus on their defensive tasks so you can focus on your own. Imagine a point guard trying to half-defend a power forward and run around the court following the point guard he's actually supposed to defend. Not a pretty sight. Trust is essential in the game of basketball. In order for a team to play together, each player needs to trust the other.

My fight against cancer is fought on many fronts, and one of them is the medical front. My teammates are my first surgeon (Dr. Ramos), my oncologist (Dr. Lenz), and my next surgeon (Dr. Sugarbaker). Funnily enough, when Dr. Ramos asked me what my decision was regarding my first surgery (as in, if I wanted to go with him or if I was considering another hospital), I responded: "I'm Team Ramos." (I wanted him to believe that it was his team back then since he was about to operate on me with some very sharp objects, but we all know it was Team WunderGlo from the start.) He was, actually, my first teammate on the medical front, and did an awesome job. With all my doctors/teammates, I believe in them and trust them entirely. I know that they will do their part to win, so I can just focus on doing my part. This inspires a lot of confidence, and also makes my job easier. It also scares the hell out of cancer.

Being a Leader

Everybody knows that Coach K runs his teams well, but being a leader isn't all about him. He cultivates leadership in every player on the team. Every player needs to be ready to step up, make a big play, say something that will inspire his teammates, and never give up. A leader is fearless and always believes in the team's ability to achieve. Plenty of Dukies come to mind, but none more than Shane Battier, who rallied his team to a National Championship in 2001 despite the injury of the team's center (the awesome Carlos Boozer) and some seriously steep competition.

Beating cancer is all about leadership. As the actual individual battling cancer itself -- not a family member showing support or a doctor treating the disease -- you MUST be a leader and own the challenge ahead of you. There is no room for passivity when you're trying to beat this thing. Thankfully, I've had a lot of time and opportunities to hone my leadership skills, so this part of the cancer beatdown has been the easiest for me. 



Winning a National Championship and beating Stage IV cancer isn't easy. It's actually pretty difficult. Admittedly, many people never achieve either goal. In the face of adversity or pain, it might be hard for someone to remember these key principles and even harder to live them. This does not worry me, though, because I know that if and when the going gets rough, I just need to remember my Blue Devils and I'll be back on the right track.

So thank you, Duke Basketball, for helping me fight (and beat) cancer. I'm sure the victory will be just as sweet as trouncing Carolina by 40 points.

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