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Facing cancer, Geppi-Aikens teaches lesson about courage

Laura Vecsey

January 7, 2003

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A PLUSH BLANKET of snow left the neighborhood outside Diane Geppi-Aikens' house in Overlea white and quiet yesterday.

Schools were closed. Roads empty. The world had tapered to a slower pace, one suitable for where she is right now: a very special place between grief and joy.

It is both physical and spiritual, this place she is navigating, she said. It is a place she is willing to describe with the same candor and energy she has used all these years as coach of Loyola's elite women's lacrosse team.

In her wheelchair, her face and belly are swollen, distorting the physical presence of this attractive, vibrant, athletic, 40-year-old woman who twice was named the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association national Coach of the Year.

The youngest of her four kids, Shannon, 8, popped into the room and said it's hard to know when her mom is happy or sad, because the swelling in Geppi-Aikens' cheeks diminishes the range of her facial expressions.

This mom is reassuring. She cries tears of joy as well as tears of sadness these days. And as for the way she looks?

"That's the steroids," Geppi-Aikens said.

"They give me this look, and they make me hungry. Especially for chocolate chip cookies. But the steroids keep the swelling in my brain down. I've had three craniographies. It's left a big horseshoe-shaped scar. Do you want to feel it?"

With her good right hand, she places your fingers on the top of her blond head, letting you feel the rutted valley where her cancer surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital has gone in three times since 1995, attempting to rid Geppi-Aikens of those dangerous cells.

Deep as it is, the scar is an old wound now. Geppi-Aikens has baffled doctors unaccustomed to a patient who so far has pushed back the timeline of this deadly disease.

But underneath that healed skull, the terrible problem persists. The cancer has been too aggressive. It has returned despite multiple surgeries, despite 30 rounds of radiation, despite chemotherapy, which she took last spring, racing back to campus in time for practice, never missing a beat.

Now, though, several smaller tumors have taken root and, worse, a larger mass on the brain stem has led Geppi-Aikens to where she is right now: waging a vigilant battle against an incurable cancer but also summoning courage and finding peace for whatever time she has left.

Yesterday, Geppi-Aikens was going back to Johns Hopkins, where radiologists were going to map her brain for more treatment. Technology has changed since Geppi-Aikens' condition was first diagnosed. Now, shaped beam radiation can be aimed at her tumors from 360 degrees, eliminating the need for invasive surgery and promising as few as eight sessions.

Her father, John Geppi, said he was angry and hurt when the oncologist last year finally told Geppi-Aikens: "Diane, this tumor is going to do you in."

The father has not missed a lacrosse game over the past 22 years, has driven his sick daughter on recruiting trips, fed her kids, remodeled parts of her old house. He didn't want the news to be delivered so bluntly. But the daughter/coach said she was glad to know the reality of her situation, so she could know how hard she should keep fighting.

"I've got to go for it. It's this or nothing," she said.

There is something about most elite athletes, most top-notch coaches, especially ones who are 15-year Division I veterans, like Geppi-Aikens. Driven, competitive, focused, these elite athletes are a special breed, be they Michael Jordan or Geppi-Aikens. Never give up. Never say never.

That's why Geppi-Aikens is absolutely no different from Mario Lemieux or Lance Armstrong or Jimmy Valvano - a hockey genius, the world's greatest cyclist and the former North Carolina State basketball coach whose own battles against cancer were fueled by a fierce competitive spirit.

"I look at it like it's the last two minutes of a basketball game," Geppi-Aikens said.

"You're down by 30 points. Everyone knows you're going to lose, but you keep taking timeouts. Everyone rolls their eyes. Why are they taking a timeout? But as a coach or a player, do you say, `You know what? We can't win this game.' Or do you play for respect?

"I think there comes a very important time in the last two minutes of the game, you either go for it, try to win that game the best way you know how. I don't think I have a choice. For me, it's that balance right now. What can I do to win? What can I do to stay at peace, knowing that I've got a bad situation here?"

Next week, Geppi-Aikens plans to fly to Anaheim, Calif., where the NCAA will honor her with its annual Inspiration Award. Accompanying her will be her partner, Andrea Borowsky, her father and two older sisters. Her mother, Catherine, will stay home and watch her kids, Michael, 17, Jessica, 15, Melissa, 12, and Shannon.

Geppi-Aikens is not good at tooting her own horn, but if anything proves the way she has touched so many lives during her tenure at Loyola, it's all the former players, fellow coaches and officials who have flown or driven in for a visit.

Friends and colleagues keep the phone ringing. They volunteer to take the kids to a movie. They send flowers, dinner, those coveted chocolate chip cookies.

"This lacrosse community is so close-knit, and the women, especially, take care of each other," she said.

They also help her stay focused on her goals. Most of all, Geppi-Aikens said, she wants to see a grandchild born. She wants to see her son graduate from Calvert Hall this spring. She wants to be on the sideline April 5, when Loyola gets its first TV game.

"I've waited 20 years for that," she said.

She also would like to see the final four, because she thinks Loyola is good enough to make it - again.

Regardless, this coach has already achieved such greatness. She has sought and achieved a balance between fighting and peace against an unfair disease - and she has never, not once, asked: Why me?

"I'm very fortunate, because you don't know how you're going to die and I do. This tumor's going to get me," she said yesterday, her voice trailing off into a nearly inaudible whisper as she fought back tears and the pain of knowing what she knows.

"The other thing is, like 9/11, people walked into those buildings and they had no idea they were going to die. All those things you hear about how those people would have wanted one more minute to say goodbye to their kids, to their families. I've got that. I can make the most out of each day, to be a mom to my kids. I can get at peace. I have that. I am very fortunate."

So is everyone else who has been touched by this coach, who is here, still teaching.