There’s no manual to show a family how to deal with cancer, no guidebook, no clear and single path to walk.
The disease drains hearts, demands to be thought about in the quiet darkness of the night, selfishly brings lives to jarring and fog-inducing halts.
That realization came to Margaret McCaffery on March 10, while she addressed the Iowa men’s basketball team. Fran, her husband and the fiery, vocal coach of the Hawkeyes, couldn’t do it. The sideline flame suddenly had been doused, the words painfully impossible to find.
So Margaret — one of the speakers Friday at the Coaches vs. Cancer Gala in Altoona — explained to the team that the McCafferys’ son, Patrick, had a thyroid tumor. When she said it was unknown whether the tumor was benign or malignant, the tough and determined anchor of the Iowa program caved under the weight of bottled emotions.
“Fran just lost it,” Margaret said. “Devyn Marble grabbed him — and I’ll never forget it — he just held him and said, ‘It’s OK. We’ve gotcha, coach, we’ve gotcha.’ He was literally holding him up.
“The support those boys showed in that moment was amazing.”
RELATED: TO DONATE TO THE CAUSE
High-profile coaches often times become one-dimensional to those who watch their public lives unfold — something other than a real person. They’re the face on the television screen, the voice on the radio or the frozen image in the newspaper.
It’s easy to forget that they, like all of us, have families and lives and vulnerabilities that ruthless opponents like cancer exploit.
Iowans remember the breast cancer journey of Theresa McDermott, the wife of former Northern Iowa and Iowa State coach Greg McDermott — the current sideline boss at Creighton. No one, unfortunately, is immune to a disease that touches far too many lives, in locker rooms and far beyond.
The situation involving Patrick, then 13, drew national attention under Twitter hashtag #TeamPat. More attention followed, as the NCAA Tournament scheduled Iowa for a “First Four” game on Wednesday — the same day as surgery to remove the tumor.
NBA All-Star Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, told of the situation through a mutual contact, tweeted support for Patrick and called the teenager before and after his surgery.
Support, those battling cancer rightfully say, is as essential a part of the treatment plan as anything delivered inside a hospital.
Margaret called the care at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics “beyond fantastic” and said the family was overwhelmed with cards, letters and more.
“Oh gosh, if we printed out all the emails, that would a box by itself,” she said.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called Fran first, Margaret said, along with Indiana coach Tom Crean and scores of others that included Northern Iowa’s Ben Jacobson, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and Drake’s Ray Giacoletti.
“This is a business based on competition, where everyone is out to beat everyone else,” she said. “But in moments like this, you see what a unique fraternity it is.”
Former Hawkeye noticed problem
The biggest gift — the gift of time — came from a former Hawkeye, Margaret said.
Former player Duez Henderson was working out at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with Pat. Something seemed off to Henderson, who approached Margaret.
“He came up and told me he wanted to talk about something,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m concerned about Patrick.’ Ten minutes into the workout, he was tired and light-headed. He needed to sit down and recover.”
The McCafferys called their pediatrician, initially worried it could be a heart condition. X-rays showed a small deviation around Patrick’s trachea, and an initial biopsy confirmed it was a tumor.
“I called Fran at the Iowa River Power Company (in Coralville), where he was eating,” she said. “When he gets news, like anything, he’s like, ‘OK, what do we do now? What’s the plan? We’re getting lots of information, we’re going to figure this out. It’ll be fine.’”
Then, as is the case with so many families, the roller-coaster ride truly began.
The ups and downs flirt with your emotions. Those involved brace as every bit of news arrives, clinging to hope that each menacing, 180-degree turn signals a heartening development just around the bend.
There’s a tumor … but it’s confined to one area.
It will require surgery … but if it’s cancer, it’s one of the most treatable.
It’s malignant … but after the surgery to remove it, tests show there’s no other cancer in Patrick’s body.
The swings are all-consuming, an exhausting ride filled with burdens and blessings.
“We’re so lucky Duez said something to us so quickly,” Margaret said.
Family dedicated to Coaches vs. Cancer
The wife of Iowa’s basketball coach subbed off the bench for Fran at Friday’s Coaches vs. Cancer event as Fran helped welcome a recruit in Iowa City.
The family felt a need to be represented at the event after cancer claimed both of Fran’s parents, Margaret’s grandmother (an aunt is fighting breast cancer, too) and rattled their lives anew with Patrick.
“I want people to know what they’re doing, their support of this, how much it matters,” she said. “When you hear ‘cancer’ it’s not a good word to hear, ever — especially involving a child. But it’s not the overwhelming, losing sentence it used to be.
“More and more and more are surviving. Without Coaches vs. Cancer, without the ACS (American Cancer Society), without awareness, that might not be happening.”
Just like any other family.
BASKETBALL PROVIDED ‘NORMALCY’
When the bracket for this season’s NCAA Tournament was revealed, those closely following the Iowa basketball team cringed.
The Hawkeyes were slotted for a “First Four” game on Wednesday — the same day as a surgery to remove a thyroid tumor from Patrick McCaffery, the son of Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
Some debated whether the elder McCaffery should be with his team, even as those around the coach organized a flight to ensure he’d be at the surgery in Iowa City and, later that night, the Tennessee game in Dayton, Ohio.
Margaret McCaffery, Fran’s wife, said only those involved ever truly understand what’s best for a family.
“People want to be critical, but that’s what Patrick wanted,” she said. “Children, more than anything, want a sense of normalcy. They don’t want to be treated differently. Fran being with the team contributed to that sense of normalcy.
“After we lost to Tennessee, I had to console Patrick. Here’s a child with a bandage around his neck in a lot of pain and he was much more worried that we lost than anything else. The last thing he would have wanted was to think Fran missed the game because of it. He loves that team.”
The timing of the surgery and game, originally an awkward development, ultimately aided the family. If Iowa had been picked for a weekend game in Raleigh, N.C., Fran might have been on the road as important health news emerged.
“The hardest moment was Friday, when we found out (the tumor was malignant),” she said. “There must be a greater power with a plan. The way it worked out, we were all together at the time we needed to be.”
“He just got really pissed. He was just really mad,” she said. “His reaction to everything, really, is more anger. He’s like, ‘No, I don’t. This is stupid. I’m fine.’ He’s a fighter.”
— Bryce Miller
WHAT’S NEXT FOR PATRICK?
The medical experts treating Patrick McCaffery will gather on May 8 to compare notes on how to proceed with treatment for the son of Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery.
Margaret McCaffery, Patrick’s mother, said they’re still weeks away from a full body scan to re-confirm there’s no cancer remaining in his body after a surgery removed a thyroid tumor March 19.
“He goes on a low-iodine diet, because the bad stuff is attracted to iodine — so you starve the body of it,” she said. “Then they give you a little radioactive iodine right before the scan and it lights up anything that might be bad.
“The good thing, it was fully contained within the one lobe of his thyroid so he didn’t have to go through any radiation to shrink it down. So we feel lucky about that.”
— Bryce Miller
DONATE TO THE CAUSE
The Coaches vs. Cancer program is a nationwide collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) that empowers basketball coaches, their teams and local communities to make a difference in the fight against cancer. Contributions can be made at www.coachesvscancergala.com.