By Steve Blanchard
After the initial shock of her stage four non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis wore off, Laurie Pacholke did what she has done for two decades – she made a game plan.
The Freedom High School girls’ basketball coach reached into her personal playbook and dug in. She did her research and looked at her cancer journey the same way that she looks at a basketball game.
“This is quarter one,” Pacholke said. “You have to plan and when things don’t go accordingly, you have to adjust. My experience as an athlete and a coach is that you have to have the mentality to fight through things, dig deeper and never give up.”
Pacholke admits that the phrases are cliché, but she also knows that they work both on the court and in life.
“Be mentally and physically tough,” she said. “That’s where it has helped as a patient.”
Pacholke discovered her cancer by happenstance. She thought she had a kidney stone. But when the pain didn’t subside and the basketball season ended, she decided to visit her doctor. A CT scan revealed enlarged nodes. A week later, she had her first appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center.
“Of course this is not anything you want to see,” said Pacholke, whose husband works at Moffitt as a cytotechnologist (a lab professional who studies cells and cellular abnormalities). “I called my husband hysterical. He is a voice of reason and he knew exactly what we needed to do. I have a comfort level with Moffitt because of my husband’s career and I know that I’m going to the best place possible for this.”
That sense of familiarity is welcome, but Pacholke came face-to-face with cancer before. Her daughter’s boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer when he was in high school, and although he passed away, Pacholke remains inspired by his attitude.
“He lived his life like he wanted and he never had the woe-is-me mentality,” Pacholke said. “He was an 18-year-old kid who was so optimistic. So who am I at almost 50 years old to feel sorry for myself?”
That’s where “Coach Pacholke” took over. Attitude, they say, is everything, and that’s how Pacholke plans to manage her diagnosis.
“I don’t think it matters what kind of cancer you have, your first thought is, ‘I’m going to die,’” Pacholke said. “But then reality sets in and you start to plan. You have to live your life and you have to focus on your future and how you are going to get to that future.”
Doctors say Pacholke’s lymphoma is incurable, but it is manageable, meaning she will have to undergo maintenance and regular scans to stay as healthy as she can.
Her latest scans held good news, and her doctor pulled her off of treatment, at least temporarily.
“I am thrilled with the news, but I know I’m not ever leaving treatment at Moffitt,” Pacholke said. “One of the hardest things with this cancer is knowing it’s always there and wondering what it is going to do next.”
Pacholke’s treatment has been successful so far and she is currently off of treatment thanks to some positive news from recent scans. But she says she will listen to her body. And while she is taking time off from coaching, she plans to be in the stands whenever possible to cheer on her players.
“Sharing this with my players was tough,” Pacholke said. “They were shocked and upset. But I think the biggest thing is that I make sure they understand there is a plan moving forward and that this is a life lesson. This is what I teach every day: you have to expect the unexpected and be prepared for it and never give up. Now it’s time to practice everything I’ve preached.”