Droesch determined to beat cancer

Former Boston College standout Clare Droesch was diagnosed with cancer on Dec. 18. AP Photo/Joe Raymond

In the past 18 years, only three teams other than UConn have won the Big East women's basketball tournament. Clare Droesch played for one of them, when her Boston College Eagles took the title in 2004.

But when she thinks back on her career, it's another win over UConn -- how many players can say they did that more than once? -- that ranks first.

"I would have to say my senior night," Droesch said of a 51-48 victory on Feb. 26, 2005, before 8,606 fans at Conte Forum. "Before that game, my teammates were looking at me and saying, 'We're not losing this; you deserve this.'

"I think there were about 90 people from my hometown at that game. There were courtside seats right behind the basket that were just my family -- my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, cousins. I remember running out and the place was packed, and seeing my family all sitting there."

That game summed up one of Droesch's most cherished aspects of being an athlete: the feeling that so many people were behind her. Today, Droesch is 29 and feels that way again. But this time, she's going against a very different opponent. Just a week before Christmas -- not even two months ago -- she got the news that still doesn't seem real. She has breast cancer.

"Right away, thank goodness, I got into Sloan-Kettering," she said of the famed cancer treatment and research institute that was founded in New York in the 1880s. "They found out it had spread to my spine and my hip. So now it's Stage IV. I'm in a trial, and there's like 66 other people in the hospital with me on it."

Yes, it happens that fast. Late last year, Droesch felt something odd when she rolled over on the couch to pick up the remote control. But she was inclined to dismiss it. Not long after that, though, she felt her arm brush against a lump when she was playing basketball. She went to have it checked out, still thinking it couldn't be that serious. The diagnosis came Dec. 18.

"The worst day of my life," she said. "I still kind of feel like I'm in a bad dream."

She is a legend in her native Rockaway Beach, N.Y., a former standout for Christ the King High School who helped Boston College attain unprecedented success. She is currently coaching at St. Edmund High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., after being an assistant last year at Scholars' Academy in Rockaway Park.

Previously, the worst things physically she'd ever been through were plantar fascia injuries. One was in the left foot that hampered, but didn't stop her, in her senior year at Boston College when she started all 30 games. The other, in the right foot, which affected her when she went to compete professionally overseas, convinced her she had to step away from her playing career. At Boston College, she averaged 9.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 126 career games.

Now, though, she's facing the biggest challenge of her life. And "game day" has a new meaning: It's the day she gets chemotherapy.

"People keep saying, 'You're so strong,' and I know I am," Droesch said. "I feel like my body can handle it. When I was hurt in college, it was hard, but I never missed a game.

"My trainers did a great job of helping me be ready to play; it was the day or two after I had to suffer, being sore. And that's how I'm taking this. Mondays are my game day, and then I face the rest of the week."

Droesch, like many athletes, got used to coping with pain. Now, the sickness and fatigue that follow chemo are just part of her schedule. She faces it in that matter-of-fact way.

"I have an aggressive cancer," she said. "My oncologist said we're hoping after six months, we can say, 'This trial worked; you're doing great.' Then I'll probably have to wait a month to get my white-blood cells up, and then I'll have surgery."

She explains this like a stereotypically brave, stiff-upper-lip New Yorker. Her tone stays steady and doesn't falter. Even when she adds, "I have to have a double mastectomy."

Where dreams are made

Droesch could just say hello, and you'd know where she was from. Her voice is so Big Apple that you can practically hear everything from "Rhapsody in Blue" to "New York, New York" to "Empire State of Mind" playing in the background.

Droesch grew up in Rockaway Beach, helped Christ the King to three prep state championship teams, and then played in four NCAA tournaments at Boston College, going to the Sweet 16 twice. The Eagles' only Big East tourney title came her junior season.

But she faced some tough times as well while at BC. The Sept. 11 attacks came just after Droesch started her freshman year. Droesch's best friend from childhood, Bernadette Heeran, lost her brother, Charlie Heeran, in the World Trade Center. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald.

Two months later came the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 into the Queens neighborhood of Belle Harbor, next to Rockaway Beach. Charlie Heeran's close friend, Chris Lawler, and his mother, Kathy, were killed when the plane hit their home. Droesch knew the Lawlers, too.

"That was a tough, tough year," Droesch said. "In Rockaway, we're such a close community, everybody knows everybody."

Indeed, while we tend to think of New York City as a sprawling metropolis of detached millions, the individual neighborhoods have the same tight-knit qualities of small towns anywhere.

Droesch grieved through her freshman year at BC and missed being home to hug everybody there who needed that every day. The same feeling of community is part of what's helping her now.

"There are some days you feel bad and want to give up, but I'm not ever gonna do that," she said. "I know the people around me won't let me. I have never given up. I always fought through any hard times I had -- with 9/11, with the plane crash, with friends leaving teams, with losing different coaches.

"I take all that stuff and think about how I got through it, and I put it all into one thing now: fighting cancer. I'm going through my own battle, and I'm blessed with all the people I have around me. That's how I'm going to get through this."

The sport is in her blood

Basketball has been Droesch's lifetime love. But she also sometimes thought about the world away from the structure of the game that had filled so many hours of so many days in her life.

But when she went to explore that, she found basketball yet again.

First, after her playing career ended, she got on the coaching track with a position at Division III UMass-Boston. Then she went to Vanderbilt in Nashville.

"Melanie Balcomb was amazing at Vanderbilt," Droesch said. "One of the best coaches I've ever seen coach."

But Droesch began to feel the tug of wanting to be closer to home, so she took a position at St. John's. Still, there was a longing to experience something else. So she did the kind of "crazy" thing you can do in your 20s.
"I moved to Hawaii," Droesch said. "My cousin and I just picked up and went. It was the best 10 months of my life. I wanted to find my own path and do something spontaneous. I'm from a beach, so I love surfing and the water. In Hawaii, I loved the weather, too."

But, as mentioned, that journey still led her back to hoops.

"I ended up coaching a boys' high school team; somehow I got mixed up in that," she said, laughing. "It was a school that had just started its program. I had kids who had barely touched a basketball, and teaching them was the greatest thing. I'd think, 'This kid will probably never play on a college team, but he'll remember that he played on his high school team, that he learned the game.' That was pretty cool."

She also worked at a bar to earn extra money, lived on the beach, bought a moped to get around.

"Pretty much everything people might wish to do there, I did," she said. "But I came home because my grandmother was ill, and I realized she wasn't going to live forever. I got to spend three months with her before she passed away."

Droesch then began working with the Scholars' Academy team that her cousin played for. The program was in just its second varsity season and had a lot of success, winning the Public Schools Athletic League Class B title. Coaching was indeed her calling, and now she feels the lessons she got from that aspect of the sport are helping her in this serious health challenge.

"I'm staying active, still coaching. I'm not just laying down," she said. "I can't overdo it, but I'm keeping my body going. It's definitely helped in just staying strong and even-keel. Like with wins and losses, I'm going to have good and bad days with this.

"As a coach, you have ups and downs, and you have to deal with them. Especially through this process, I want to show people how strong I am. I just want to beat this, move on, and be stronger from it."

Droesch has insurance, but the costs of treatment are not all covered. Family and friends have arranged benefits, and she said Sloan-Kettering also has guided her to programs to help pay for medical bills.

"It's weird with some things that are covered and some things that aren't," she said. "Insurance kind of blows my mind, especially having to learn a lot more about it now.

"I'm trying not to think too much about that. My family and I have close friends trying to help us. Honestly, I do worry about it, but I have to worry more about my health right now. The support of everyone around me, though … I can't even begin to describe it. It's amazing."

Her former Boston College coach, Cathy Inglese, is at Rhode Island now but checks in regularly with Droesch. High school teams and Hoftstra University are dedicating games to Droesch. Boston College will have her No. 15 on its Play 4Kay warm-up shirts.

Droesch thinks back to the magic of that last home game at BC. Fellow senior Jess Deveny had injured her Achilles' tendon Feb. 2, which had ended her college career. Droesch wanted to win as much for Deveny as she did for herself. UConn had beaten the Eagles 80-55 just more than two weeks earlier in Storrs, Conn., and Droesch knew full well how Herculean a task it would be to try to reverse that.

She had 10 points and five rebounds in 38 minutes, and afterward helped carry a celebrating Deveny off the court to a standing ovation.

Droesch certainly doesn't equate winning a basketball game to beating cancer; it's ludicrous to think that they are actually comparable. Yet the strength and feeling of solidarity that basketball helped give her really do matter a lot now. So does every game in the Play 4Kay initiative.

"Pink was never my favorite color," Droesch said. "But now I feel like I live by it every day."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.