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Jonelle Streed lives a stressful life. The Cambridge native is an assistant women’s basketball coach at Wisconsin-La Crosse, meaning the pressure of wins and losses and recruiting battles is a daily part of her life.
Streed also is a college admissions officer there – which equals more stress.
“I had so many worries,” she said. “Recruiting is my number one job at any of the colleges I have coached. I am always calling, texting, or following up with the next great recruit for our program.”
But roughly two years ago, Streed got a new worry. A scary, dangerous, real worry.
She had breast cancer.
It was a cruel twist of fate for the former Cambridge-Isanti basketball standout who had tasted nothing but success over the years. This past August she was inducted into the school’s athletics Hall of Fame after earning 13 letters as a four-year starter in three sports for the Bluejackets, earning all-state honors and notice as a Minnesota Miss Basketball candidate in 1999.
She then played collegiately at St. Cloud State, serving as team captain as a senior and setting a school record for 3-pointers made in a season. She stayed in college basketball by becoming an assistant basketball coach under famous coaches such as Stanford’s Tara Vanderveer.
She served as an assistant coach at Division I schools such as Arizona and Miami (Ohio). Now she does double duty at UW-La Crosse, a position she has held for the past four years.
But all of those on-court tussles merely toughened her up for the most difficult battle of her life.
“I knew I was in trouble when the doctors’ demeanor changed,” Streed said. “I was cracking jokes, and no one was laughing.”
No one was laughing around Halloween in 2017, because Streed got a scary diagnosis.
“I found a lump under my right arm on a Thursday, but I waited over the weekend to see if it would disappear – and it did not,” she said. “I hoped I had pulled a muscle trying a new exercise in the weight room with our team. So I had an appointment with a physician’s assistant at the hospital in La Crosse on Monday.”
The diagnosis was breast cancer. And the numbers were daunting: According to breastcancer.org, about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes, and this year nearly 42,000 women in this country are expected to die from breast cancer.
But Streed never considered the possibility of even having breast cancer.
“My diagnosis was shocking and terrifying,” she said. “I was 36 years old, very fit, and I eat healthy – I am the person at the restaurant ordering a salad instead of fries. I did not have a family history [of breast cancer]. And I have always tried to stay very fit.”
“By the end of the week I had a mammogram and a biopsy – and I knew I was in trouble.”
Streed was, as you can imagine, “emotional and angry” when she first got the word.
“I locked myself in the basement and turned all of the lights off,” she said. “I called my family and let them know the situation.”
But Streed also made the wise decision to allow her anger to pass. She used a service called StoryWorth, which collects thoughts and ideas and preserves them so friends and family can share those memories.
In January she wrote a post on that site centered on the idea of “Today,” writing, “I can’t remember the things I worried about in August and September. They don’t matter. … Value the things that matter today. It’s all you have and it’s all I have.”
In a February post she listed a bunch of positives, some philosophical and some silly. The list included “No drain is a positive,” since Streed endured four drains – a tube in the surgical incision used to remove fluid from the healing area – after surgery. And everyone can agree with her statement that, “Ice Cream is always a positive.”
The diagnosis of breast cancer is daunting enough. The treatments are no picnic, either.
Streed dealt with 139 doctors appointments over 281 days of treatment, which began with a double mastectomy on Dec. 5, followed by eight treatments of chemotherapy starting on Jan. 31. There was a second surgery in May, then 32 radiation treatments.
“I also went through genetic testing, had my eggs frozen to ensure I could have children one day, and had not one, but two, breast implant surgeries – and a heck of a lot of check-ups,” she said. “I am also in a two-year research study … where I am tracked until next August. I have 21 days of chemo-type pills and seven days off each month, and I just finished cycle 12 of 24 to help the fight and those doing research against cancer.”
Doctors originally were unsure of the size of the tumor and were not sure there was only one tumor. During her first surgery in December 2017, Streed’s surgeon found three tumors, which he removed, and also removed 27 lymph nodes under her right arm after five were found to be infected with cancer.
Then came the chemotherapy — the treatment used to destroy undetected cancer cells and reduce the risk of cancer returning. Soon after that ended, Streed endured surgery in May to remove a port from her chest.
“I was terrified to have [that port] removed,” she admitted. “But my oncologist told me I had a very positive outlook, and she felt comfortable to have it removed.”
During the surgeries and treatments, Streed said she fought to maintain her typical life patterns.
“I only missed a few basketball practices that season,” she said. “It was helpful for me to do things that felt ‘normal,’ even if I sat on the sideline in a chair.”
But all of that effort proved to be worthwhile when she was told she was cancer-free.
“The next important date for me is Oct. 26, 2019: Most reoccurrences with my type of cancer happen in the two years following diagnosis,” Streed said. “A friend told me I need to throw one heck of a party when we get to that day!”
Cancer has given Streed a new perspective on even the most difficult parts of her job at UW-La Crosse.
“In the summer of 2018 I was unable to recruit the big [AAU] events because of my daily radiation,” she said. “This summer, however, I was in the gym at 8 a.m. with smile on my face evaluating talent – while most other coaches were complaining about the early time of the game or the duration of their day. …
“If I was watching a 8:30 p.m. game that same day, I was still smiling. It was amazing to be able to be there as I wasn’t in 2018. Cancer helped me realize the things I truly enjoy about my job. I love recruiting and creating relationships with future UWL Eagles!”
Streed also learned that she is surrounded by a number of supportive friends and family.
“My family is my rock and they always have been,” she said. “My parents, Doug and Connie, came down from Cambridge as much as they could to help through the surgeries and treatments. My brother, Shea, and his wife, Amanda, were very supportive as well. And my aunt Sandy and her family have been huge supporters through my battle.”
Streed said the support system at Wisconsin-La Crosse athletics, especially the members of the women’s basketball team, was almost “overwhelming.”
“Our team wore pink shoelaces all year in honor of me,” she said. “There were countless numbers of people that sent gifts and letters, food and blankets, and so many amazing words of encouragement. The vice chancellor of Academic Affairs at UWL, Betsy Morgan, had just finished breast cancer treatment and was my go-to for so many of my daily battles.”
There were several lessons Streed wanted to pass along to women dealing with this dangerous disease.
“First, women should be aware of their bodies,” she said. “I knew the second I felt something that felt odd and I went in less than a week after I felt it. I believe that helped save me and allowed my cancer to be treated better.
“Second, everyone is different, so you should listen and trust in your doctors. My team at Gundersen [Medical Center in La Crosse] is truly [a group of] amazing people who saved my life.
“And third, stay as positive as possible. I really tried to keep a positive outlook. ‘Today’ was my mantra: I couldn’t control anything more than the day I had, healthy or sick. So I would be thankful for each day I had, and very thankful for the days I could do what I wanted and not feel sick.”
She also had advice for those who have loved ones dealing with breast cancer.
“Support your loved one in the way they need it most,” Streed said. “I didn’t need to be on the phone or given attention. I wanted to keep my battle quiet. I really appreciated the mail I received, those that made me food during my treatment, and the many gift cards I was given.
“One of my cousins even gave me Vikings tickets – and that was incredible! I cried through the first quarter of the Vikings game for my fortune and for the circumstance of the tickets.”
Her new perspective on life has been reflected in her StoryWorth writings.
“I want to hit 40, and I want the dread of 50, and I would be blessed the feel the pain and oldness of 60,” Streed wrote. “What’s the point of retirement if you don’t get to retire?
“Goals. Perspective. Everything is going to be alright.”