Women's Basketball: Martin plans on 'winning a lot of battles' despite stage 4 cancer

Pat Stoetzer
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times

Becky Martin never thought she’d be a Johns Hopkins fan.

The longtime McDaniel College women’s basketball coach relayed that message to some doctors earlier this year, after one of her former players who had some connections helped arrange an appointment with a Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon. Martin said she knew something wasn’t right after a visit to her doctor and being diagnosed with an inflamed pancreas.

She followed her doctor’s orders, Martin said, but couldn’t seem to shake her symptoms. The trip to Hopkins confirmed what Martin had feared. What started as a feeling of indigestion, and later became pancreatitis, was much more.

Martin had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

“This certainly was not the news I anticipated,” said Martin, a Westminster High School graduate who has been McDaniel’s coach for 38 years. “When the doctor kind of looks at you and says, ‘We can’t cure this. We have to find a balance between chemo and quality of life.’ … That’s pretty disheartening.

“One of the things I’ll say, because of the type of person I am, is I’ve always been a long-odds person. I may not win the war, but I plan on winning a lot of battles.”

Martin, 59, has won her share over the last 37 seasons — including many victories against rival school Johns Hopkins University — when she took over as McDaniel’s coach after ending her college career as an all-time Green Terror basketball great.

The Terror have 15 Centennial Conference tournament appearances under their longtime coach, with four conference championships and six NCAA tournament trips.

Martin’s 554 wins, the most in program history, have her in the top 20 all-time among the nation’s Division III coaches.

Basketball has defined her for the better part of five decades, from her high school playing days at Westminster to then-Western Maryland College, now McDaniel. But Martin’s life took a different turn earlier this year.

After the final game of the regular season, Feb. 17 at Muhlenberg, Martin said she didn’t feel well on the bus ride back home. The team made a stop to get some food, and Martin said the trip was longer than usual because of snow.

When she asked assistant coach Alyssa March, who ate the same thing, how she was feeling, and March had no complaints, Martin assumed she’d be getting that end-of-the-year illness that tends to hit a tired college basketball coach once the season is over.

The discomfort lingered, however, and Martin said, “I knew something was wrong.”

Martin said she had a relative die as a result of pancreatic cancer, which is why she wasn’t fully satisfied with the initial diagnosis. Not long after, Martin got her visit to Johns Hopkins.

Surgery wasn’t an option, Martin said the doctors told her, because the cancer had spread.

“Even when you’re questioning, because I didn’t fit the boxes of the symptoms, pancreatitis is one of them,” Martin said. “But I had numerous doctors tell me [earlier], ‘That’s normally not an issue, don’t worry about it.’ I followed up under the doctor’s orders, and did what I was supposed to do.

“I joked with my family and friends … I don’t really drink. I’ve never smoked; never even took a drag on a cigarette. Never did recreational drugs, and I grew up in that era. Sooner or later, this has to play out in my benefit. So I’m hoping.”

Toby McIntire played for Martin from 2000-04, and she’s still the Green Terror’s all-time leader in assists (463). McIntire has kept in close contact with Martin over the years, like so many of the coach’s former players. When McIntire heard the news, it didn’t take long for her to act.

“Within hours of [our] conversation, we had a spider web of immediate alumni and we were able to set up a Facebook group, get something going online,” said McIntire, who created a donation web page on PurpleStride Maryland’s site.

PurpleStride is an online fundraising and awareness vehicle for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

McIntire said 30 former McDaniel players joined Martin in a cancer awareness walk Sunday in Catonsville, an event that did a lot of good to her former coach.

“She doesn’t have any children herself, but she’s got daughters in all of us,” McIntire said. “Any time I speak with her, I just try to empower her. Bring positivity. … That’s exactly what she has been saying all along. She just wants to be in a position to fight. She’s facing this thing head on.”

Martin has plenty of support, it seems.

In late August, McDaniel made it official in announcing Martin’s indefinite leave of absence from the program. March is taking over as the Green Terror’s associate head coach, with former assistant Rick Little taking set as interim head coach. (Assistants Jerry Georgiana and Phil Popielski are back as well.)

Martin’s network of friends, family and former players is large. And it has helped her through these last few months, she said.

If Martin wants someone to pick up a Big Mac or a Whopper for her, it’s done. If she wants a partner to meet her for a walk outside, it’s done.

She recently took a trip with a cousin to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone to cross off one of her “Bucket List” items.

It’s about a strong quality of life, Martin said, despite dealing with data that doesn’t usually show the most positive results.

According to the American Cancer Society’s website, the one-year survival rate for all four stages of pancreatic cancer — the fourth-most common case of cancer death — is 20 percent. The five-year survival rate is 7 percent.

Martin knows the devastating numbers.

She’s choosing to find her “new normal,” she said. And that means enjoying those around her who continue to show support, an outpouring Martin described as “overwhelming.”

“I don’t want to set myself apart from other cancer victims, or people who are dealing with it,” Martin said. “Because everybody’s in it for the fight of their life. But, there’s no question I’ve always been a competitor.

“My cancer enzymes are down, they’re in the normal range at this point,” she said. “The tumors are shrinking. So I say the chemo and the prayers are a formidable duo.”

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