UConn legend Jim Calhoun shares his cancer story at Survivors' Day luncheon

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Oct. 7, 2013
Former UConn men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun describes his three battles with cancer at the Backus Survivors' Day luncheon. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Former UConn men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun describes his three battles with cancer at the Backus Survivors' Day luncheon. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Former University of Connecticut Huskies men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun defied advice and drove himself the 102 miles to and from his cancer treatments. “I did that to fight the cancer,” he said. “I convinced myself that doing this 102 miles five days a week, I was feeling better.”

Calhoun described his three separate bouts with cancer – melanoma, prostate and thoracic – for fellow survivors at Backus Hospital’s 15th annual Cancer Survivors’ Day luncheon Oct. 5. More than 500 cancer survivors and their families gathered for an outdoor picnic and hopeful messages from Backus oncology staff, as well as from fellow cancer survivors.

“I’m a competitive person,” Calhoun said. “I’m not going to let anything beat me.” He described returning to the basketball court just nine days after his surgery for prostate cancer. “I came back – and we won, which was very important for me,” he said.

Calhoun said that cancer has made him more stubborn and more dedicated to get the most out of every day. “I’m not going to try to tell you how to feel, tell you what you should do,” he said. But he said his struggle with cancer “alters the way I look at things a tad… If you go up every single day and truly believe that it’s the best day you’re going to have – it may not be the best, but it’s going to be close.” 

The research being conducted at Backus is key to winning the fight against cancer, said Calhoun. “You have a whole network of incredible people working on incredible things to make your life so much better.”

Dr. Dinesh Kapur, medical director of cancer services at Backus, said that the hospital currently has 80 percent of its cancer patients involved in clinical trials of many types, far more than even nationally-recognized cancer centers. Thanks to its “protocol to patient” program, it can place even a single patient on a clinical trial, the only hospital in Connecticut with this capacity, he said. As a result, “we will be getting very early-stage medicines not available to everyone else.”

Guest speaker Elizabeth LaFlamme-Baker also described her journey with cancer, from finding a lump in her breast in the shower at age 29 to a double mastectomy and subsequent chemotherapy. “I can remember wanting to give up when the neuropathy hit my hands,” she recalled, but a Backus staffer “kept telling me, ‘You have to keep fighting for the people that love you.’” Those people now include her infant son, Vincent, born after her surgery.

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate. We’re all possible targets. But we’ve all been given a second chance,” said LaFlamme-Baker. “I keep going on difficult days for those family members and friends who didn’t make it. I thought cancer changed my life, but nothing prepared me” for the changes of parenthood, she said. 

Prior to the luncheon, participants could enjoy a therapeutic massage or pick up helpful information from a number of booths. Madonna Kilcollum of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, with help from Katie Montz, handed out t-shirts and brochures describing the warning signs of ovarian cancer. The disease, she said, is not screenable, and “the symptoms are so vague, but new symptoms that last for two weeks or more” should be checked by a gynecological obstetrician.

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