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USM women’s basketball coach diagnosed with cancer

Lee-McNelis facing cancer battle for 2nd time in 4-year span
Southern Miss head coach and Hancock alum Joye Lee-McNelis welcomes the Lady Eagles onto the...
Southern Miss head coach and Hancock alum Joye Lee-McNelis welcomes the Lady Eagles onto the court prior to their Women's Basketball Invitational contest at Reed Green Coliseum on Monday, March 25, 2019.
Updated: Jan. 9, 2021 at 6:08 PM CST
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi women’s basketball coach Joye Lee-McNelis said Saturday that she will be facing a battle with cancer for the second time in four years.

“It’s back,” Lee-McNelis said.

Lee-McNelis said Saturday that she had been diagnosed with Stage Four cancer in the pleural area lining her lung.

After a biopsy Monday came back malignant, a PET scan Wednesday later in the week revealed four other cancer spots in her muscles.

“It has been a very hard week,” Lee-McNelis said. “Obviously, it’s in God’s hands. We can say that.”

Lee-McNelis, who is in her 17th season with the Lady Eagles, had surgery in February 2017 to remove a malignant mass in the upper lobe of her left lung.

Lee-McNelis said she intended to keep coaching for as long as she was able to this season.

“We will move forward and I will give it my best shot, put my boxing gloves on and be ready to fight,” Lee-McNelis said.

Lee-McNelis said the latest episode began when she came down with the coronavirus Thanksgiving weekend.

“I had a really bad bout with COVID and my lungs gave me a lot of problems,” she said.

Lee-McNelis was scheduled for her regular, three-month checkup on New Year’s Eve, and when she saw her doctor’s face, she knew there was an issue.

“He said, ‘Joye, it’s not good,’” Lee-McNelis said.

The fluid in the pleural area had tripled, causing her to have difficulty breathing on USM’s Conference USA-opening road trip at the University of Texas-El Paso.

“I was having trouble breathing, with the change in elevation,” she said. “I coached that second game on oxygen.

“And I’d been tired since the COVID. been extremely tired. At UTEP, I slept 10 hours, and did not go to pregame breakfast.”

Her doctor had scheduled a biopsy for Monday after she returned from Texas.

“In my mind, I’m thinking it’s all the aftermath of COVID,” Lee-McNelis said. “That’s what I thought of it as. Little did I know.”

Lee-McNelis gathered with her family and friends, including her doctors, Sunday evening.

“It’s been very tough emotionally on my family,” she said. “My (daughter) Whitney, she (works) in the cancer field, so she knows a little bit more about it, and she just broke down.

“They just said, “Joye, it’s not going to be good. You just need to brace yourself because it’s not going to be good.’

It wasn’t

Monday’s biopsy confirmed the Adenocarcinoma had returned. A Wednesday PET scan indicated it had spread.

“It’s in the fluid, and the fluid goes throughout your body, so, yeah, it’s really, really scary,” Lee-McNelis said. “It’s challenging, very emotional.”

She said her doctors in Hattiesburg and Jackson found it odd, though, that it had showed up in the spots that it had, primarily in the muscles in her back.

“Lung cancer does not go to muscle,” she said.

So, her test results will be sent to Dallas to be reviewed by a long-time cancer specialist. Eventually, Lee-McNelis will make the trip to see him.

Her doctors also offered a possible silver lining in a black cloud of cancer.

If the current cancer is something called a “driver one” mutation at the molecular level of her initial cancer, the treatments will be less harsh than chemotherapy, Lee-McNelis said.

That outcome should be known within the next two weeks.

“We’re praying for that,” she said.

Lee-McNelis said she told the Lady Eagles about her situation in another emotional gathering.

“Everybody in this program has been whacked around by COVID this year,” Lee-McNelis said. “We’ve faced the storm.

“But it’s like I told them, “I am at Southern Miss,’” Lee-McNelis said. “When you are at Southern Miss and you face a storm, what do you do? You rise above it.”

That’s why Lee-McNelis said she will continue her coaching duties for as long as she can.

“I made a commitment to this university,” Lee-McNelis said. “I love this university. I want to do this university proud. The last thing I ever want to do is disappoint somebody who gave me an opportunity.

“But I’m going to need prayers, I’m going to need encouragement. I’ll tell you, I think I’m a tough knuckle, I really do, but this really kicks you in the teeth when it’s round two.”

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