McNellis Strong: Mississippi rallies around coach’s Stage 4 cancer battle
Published 11:37 pm Friday, September 29, 2023
Southern Miss women’s basketball head coach Joye Lee-McNelis remains #McNelisStrong following the diagnosis that her stage 4 lung cancer, adenocarcinoma, has recurred.
Entering her 20th-year at the helm of Lady Eagle basketball, McNelis has no plans on taking a backseat in coaching as Southern Miss looks to defend its Sun Belt Conference regular season title.
“I am truly blessed to have my family and many prayer warriors that have impacted my life in a great way,” said McNelis. “I believe that with God’s help and His gifts of strength, that I can push through and be an example for many others. It is important to me to demonstrate to my players that life is going to throw us curve balls sometimes, but you’ve always got to show up and hit them. After my diagnosis, I had a conversation with our team and promised them that I would not sell them short and that I plan to be with them every step of the way in the same way they are with me.”
On Aug. 14, 2023, a PET scan revealed areas of activity in her lung. The nodules discovered in the scan were attached to one of her ribs directly over her heart, and surgery was needed to biopsy them. During the excisional biopsy, her doctors discovered other microscopic spots that were not detected radiographically on her original scans.
Doctors believed the spots on her pleura surface (the layers of tissue that protect the lungs) to be a late metastatic reoccurrence of her adenocarcinoma, that is, the same cancer as before, but in a different location.
Foundation one scans confirmed the doctor’s hypothesis. The nodules biopsied contained the same EGFR Exon 19 deletion mutations as before. After this news, Coach and her husband Dennis, traveled to The University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, for recommendations on her next steps.
While there were drug trials available, MD Anderson’s oncology staff recommended Coach return home for additional treatments on top of what she was already using. Prior to this diagnosis, Coach McNelis took Tagrisso for targeted therapy of her mutated genes which are causing her lung cancer. Scans and biopsy showed that some cells have adapted to the current dosages and have become resistant to Tagrisso.
MD Anderson’s recommendation was for Coach to take on two additional chemotherapy treatments and an immunotherapy treatment. For chemotherapy, Coach McNelis will be receiving infusions of Carboplatin and Alimta. She will also receive infusions of Keytruda for immunotherapy.
As of today, Coach has already undergone the first of four treatment cycles and has responded well. She and her doctors have the next treatment scheduled for Oct. 11, and all four treatments are being done in Hattiesburg at the Forrest Health Cancer Center. The remaining treatments are expected to run through late November but are subject to change.
After four rounds of treatment, doctors hope that a subsequent PET scan will indicate no new activity in her problem areas. Once this has happened, Coach will then enter ‘maintenance’ and would be able to discontinue chemotherapy. She would still take Tagrisso and Keytruda and would begin the next step in her process.
This is Coach McNelis’ third battle with this same cancer after doctors originally discovered it in 2017, which ended with the removal of her lungs’ upper left lobe. The same adenocarcinoma recurred in 2020, this time in the pleura surface of her left lung. After this discovery, she began treatment with Tagrisso and doctors believed the cancer was in remission until her PET scan on Aug. 14.
Coach McNelis asks for nothing more than prayers for herself and has partnered with the Hospital Patient Navigation Program at Forrest General Hospital to provide assistance to other cancer patients in need. For more information, go to smttt.info/McNelisStrong and selected the Coach McNelis Fund from the dropdown menu.
“As I have gone through this battle with cancer, I have learned about so many other people in our community that have no way to get to their treatments,” said McNelis. “It is important to me that we raise funds to help them in their fight against cancer. I know of a gentleman who is 91 years old that drives one hour to his treatment and returns home. He has no family or anyone else to assist him in his travels and he is not alone in having this problem. That is why the Navigation Program is so dear to my heart. It can benefit these individuals and many others. It is important that we let these cancer patients know that they are not in this fight alone.”
Southern Miss will also host its annual Lung Cancer Awareness game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, to raise awareness and funds for lung cancer patients and the Navigation Program.
Coach McNelis also serves as the Sun Belt Conference’s Captain to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) and the WBCA’s Kay Yow Cancer Fund Initiative. Since its inception in 2007, the Kay Yow Cancer Fund has awarded more than eight million dollars to support life-saving cancer research and underserved programs that provide access to quality cancer healthcare.
The Fund’s largest fundraising initiative is Play4Kay, which allows women’s basketball teams across the country to designate games in which to raise funds for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. Southern Miss will be hosting its Play4Kay game on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, against Louisiana.
You can donate to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund on behalf of Coach McNelis today by going to support.kayyow.com/USM.