Bob Starkey: My Hero
In June of 2007, during Bob Starkey's first stint coaching at LSU, his wife Sherie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Coach Starkey recounts the courage Sherie showed through her successful fight and what led him to join the Kay Yow Cancer Fund Board of Directors.
Editors Note: When LSU takes on Ole Miss Thursday, February 16 at 8 p.m. inside the PMAC it will serve as LSU’s annual Play4Kay game. Bob and Sherie Starkey will donate one dollar to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund for every LSU student in attendance.
At the age of 63, there have been two dates that have dramatically changed my life. The first coming on September 7, 1991 when Sherie Yvette Hayslett made me the happiest man on the face of the planet by taking my hand in marriage.
Then there was June 19, 2007.
On that day, I was in our Baton Rouge house working on the computer in my home office. It was late morning and Sherie walked in saying she had just gotten on off the phone with the doctor.
“I have breast cancer.”
It is impossible for me to put into words the incredible wave of emotions that washed through me at the moment. As I got up from my chair to hug her, the first thought that came to mind was “could she possibly die?” And then, I just as quickly erased that thought, looked into her eyes, and said, “We’re going to be OK — we’re going to beat this.”
And then the journey began.
The bad news was that we had been diagnosed with HER2, one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancers…the good news is that it was Stage 1 — the result of early detection. In 1991, Sherie had felt a lump during a self-examination and while it proved to be nothing more than a water-filled cyst, a checkup found another lump which also proved to be nothing serious but started her on an annually scheduled mammogram. In 2002, after an ultrasound, our doctors suggested two mammograms a year — which eventually found the cancerous tumor — early!
Sherie and I often speak to organizations and the one thing we are quick to point out is that she is alive because or early detection.
After we received the phone call, we met with our doctor and went about putting together our “Dream Team” of physicians, including our oncologist Georgie Reine, surgeon Mary Christian, and cardiologist Carl Luikart.
There were more tests and then a scheduled lumpectomy to remove the cancer, which went well. Then Sherie had a port installed to receive her chemo and meds. Sherie named her port “Polly” after the cartoon Underdog’s girlfriend. Yes, “Polly Port.”
It was early in our journey when I came to the realization that my wife is a hell of lot tougher than I am. While I am silent in my fear with a happy, positive face on the outside, Sherie is steamrolling through each day with the most amazing attitude.
On July 2, we started chemo and Herceptin, which was a relatively new medicine for HER2 breast cancer. It was during this process that we learned of all the groundbreaking treatments for breast cancer that are available today. Early on, there was only one type of chemo, often called “Red Devil” because it was red and made patients incredibly ill. Today, treatments are practically tailored to each patient. Along with Sherie’s chemo and Herceptin, she had a medication to fight nausea.
Chemotherapy was at the oncologist’s office. This was where we were introduced to the “Infusion Room.” It was a large room filled with comfortable recliners. The nurses that worked there were amazing. They were personable, great listeners, and positive-thinking people. It was in the Infusion Room that I had another realization. The women would be sitting in their recliners with tubes attached to their ports and various medications pouring into their systems while their husbands and boyfriends sat by their sides. The women would be chatting about anything and everything — their children, their jobs, television shows, vacation plans — anything and everything. While we men sat there and stared into space. We all knew what each other was thinking. Some women drove themselves to the Infusion Room and then drove to work. Early on, it hit me. Sherie just wasn’t tougher than me — women were tougher than men!
We received our radiation treatments at the Mary Bird Cancer Center. It was staffed by amazing people who impacted Sherie and me greatly.
Early in our journey, Sherie and I had a conversation about whether we wanted to battle this disease privately and concentrate completely on doing what we needed to do to defeat cancer? Or did we want to take our battle public and see if we could do some good in our community? Both choices are correct ones — and it is up to each team to decide.
Our choice had a great deal to do with Coach Kay Yow. If I can rewind, I’ll explain:
In March of 2007, I was serving as the interim head coach for the LSU Lady Tigers in the NCAA Tournament, and we had advanced to the Regionals in Fresno, California. Another of the regional participants was Coach Yow and her North Carolina State team. I was sitting in my hotel room with my wife. We were watching a moving piece on ESPN on Coach Yow and her battle with breast cancer, talking about how Coach Yow had actually had a chemo treatment on the team plane from Raleigh, NC to Fresno. It was very moving, and I can remember as if it were yesterday my wife Sherie, with tears in her eyes, saying, “She must be an amazing woman.”
Two months later Sherie was diagnosed with breast cancer. When we spoke about the various options, Sherie simply said, “I hope I’m as tough as Coach Yow.”
During the 2008 Final Four in Tampa, my wife and I were honored to speak at the inaugural Kay Yow Foundation press conference and for the first time, Sherie got to meet her new hero. I had known Coach Yow for some time, working her camps. But I will never forget how she treated Sherie that day — as if they were old friends.
The first group we shared our news with was our LSU Lady Tiger Basketball family. There is nothing — and I mean nothing — like a team. Our team rallied around Sherie in so many ways — especially our players. They constantly checked on her and offered assistance. And not just the current players, but the alums. Temeka Johnson was a constant visitor and someone who made herself available to Sherie in her fundraising projects. Throughout her playing career, Sylvia Fowles would send Sherie her pink game shoes with an inscription. Marie Ferdinand sent her a pink sweat suit. There were notes, cards, and phone calls. The love she felt from so many made a huge difference.
Soon the time came, as it does with most, that Sherie’s hair started to fall out. I was worried about how this would affect Sherie. You see Sherie is a cosmetologist — went to school…got her license…opened her own successful hair salon. Hair was important to her. But as with everything else in our journey, it never phased her. She told anyone who asked that it meant a shorter shower for her, laughing as she said it. We made the decision that I would shave my hair as well — after all, we are a team. We set a date and Sherie broke out her professional clippers and in our living room we shaved each other bald! We walked into the bathroom to look in the mirror and both laughed.
Of course, I was upset. I thought for the first time in my married life that I would finally be the more attractive one — WRONG! Sherie was stunning — even without hair! I wanted to make it as fun as possible, so I scheduled a “Glamor Shot” photo shoot for the two of us. Sherie looked so amazing that the studio actually put up some of her photos in their store — the ones without me.
We purchased wigs for Sherie, but she opted never to wear them, being comfortable with whom she was and how she looked. Only an occasional hat to keep her head warm.
We scheduled her chemo times in the morning so I could be with her and not miss our afternoon workouts with the team. What this does is it creates a “chemo family”. The same people are there at the same time and they get to know each other very well.
There was one day, however, when we had to move our chemo treatment to the afternoon. We were out in the waiting room when a woman arrived in a wheelchair. This was obviously her normal time because everyone in the waiting room smiled, waved, and called her by name. Then another woman said, “What are you doing here? I thought you were done with your treatment a month ago?” The woman replied, “I did finish up, but the doctors asked me to come back in.”
Soon after, they wheeled her back. Before long, she came back out in the waiting room where she was crying and visibly upset. Her friend from earlier asked what was wrong and she responded, “The doctor told me the cancer is back, has spread, and it is not treatable.”
There was stunned silence, followed by tears from everyone. My body shook. Except by the grace of God that could be Sherie. Wait, it still could be. There’s no guarantee that the cancer won’t return. It happened to Coach Yow. That afternoon in the Infusion Room was very sobering.
But that’s not the part of the story I want to leave with you.
A few weeks later, we were back in the Infusion Room at our regular time and in wheeled this same woman who earlier had been told she had only a short while left on this earth. As a friend wheeled her around, she reached into a Kroger bag on her lap and brought out a wrapped gift. She gave one to each nurse in the Infusion Room, thanking them for taking care of her. It was the most amazing act of humility I have ever witnessed. I have told the story many times, never without tears or my voice cracking.
After a year of treatment, the news that you are cancer-free gives you an emotion never before felt…it’s hard to explain — happiness…joy…exhilaration. Those words aren’t suitable for describing it.
But then, Dr. Christian asked to meet with us. We were told the BRCA test they had performed on Sherie had come back positive for the BRCA gene. Dr. Christian told us, in simple terms, that there could be up to a 40% chance the cancer could return! My mind immediately thought of Coach Yow and the woman in the Infusion Room. Dr. Christian said her recommendation, and she said it was a very strong recommendation, was for Sherie to have a double mastectomy removing both her breasts. She told us the chance of the cancer returning would drop to 2%. The decision for me was easy but it wasn’t up to me. As we went through this journey, I thought Sherie needed to have ownership for her decisions — it was, after all, her body. My responsibility was to fully support those decisions. Normally, when it got to situations like that, she would ask my opinion — not this time. She said, “Let’s do it!”
This is where we added one more member to our “Dream Team” — Dr. Gary Cox, our reconstructive plastic surgeon.
Today Sherie remains cancer free — and there isn’t a day that goes by that we take that for granted. Before her diagnosis, I spent too much time at my job and not enough time with her. There would be summers where she would vacation with friends because I didn’t think I could be away from my job. During the season, I would spend two nights a week in the office, never going home, preparing the next scouting report. I worked on Christmas Eve and even Christmas Day.
Not anymore. As much as I loved Sherie on that wedding night of September 7, 1991, it’s multiplied by 1000. We don’t miss vacations anymore. We don’t miss opportunities to spend time with each other.
The journey was difficult, but it was also a blessing.
Sherie was so affected by the staff in the Infusion Room that she became a volunteer worker, volunteering at the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center until we moved. We got involved with the Komen Foundation and, of course, the Kay Yow Foundation. She was the head of a committee that ran an annual fund-raising golf tournament for Women’s Hospital. She was a chairperson for the annual Komen’s Race for the Cure in Baton Rouge. She even shot a commercial for Mary Bird Perkins which ran several years.
As you can tell, I’m incredibly proud of her. She’s my hero!
Five years ago, I was honored to receive a call from Stephanie Glance who heads up the Kay Yow Foundation, asking for me to join the Board of Supervisors. I have been overwhelmed with the drive and commitment to raise funds and awareness to fight all cancers affecting women.
As a coach of a women’s basketball team, it’s so incredibly important to me that we do all we can to defeat breast cancer. It’s not lost on me that when we huddle at midcourt after each practice, and we have 12 to 15 young women standing in that circle, that the national statistics say 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. It is predicted that over 250,000 new cases of breast cancer will occur in 2023.
We are making great strides in the battle against breast cancer, but we are also far from total and complete victory. This is why Play4Kay remains so critically important for all those women we love and want to protect – like my hero – Sherie!