UNC Coach Spreads Cancer Awareness

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Sylvia Hatchell told only her family and close friends that she might have ovarian cancer.

She's more vocal now that the happy ending has arrived: After finding out she is cancer-free, North Carolina's women's basketball coach is using her good news to make more people aware of the disease.

Hatchell, about to start her 15th year at North Carolina, had surgery June 8 after doctors found signs she could have ovarian cancer. The surgery proved she didn't, but she knows many others are not as lucky.

Hatchell, son Van and husband Sammy announced Wednesday they will contribute $5 for every season ticket sold this year to the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

``I could have very easily had a bad outcome but I am very happy because I have my health now and I feel like I am probably the most blessed person in the world,'' said Hatchell, whose teams won the 1994 national championship and four Atlantic Coast Conference titles. She was an assistant coach in 1988 when the U.S. women won the Olympic gold medal.

Her doctors at UNC Hospitals, whom she calls ``one of the most important teams in my life,'' were excited by her decision to go public.

``We appreciate her willingness to speak openly about her experience,'' said Dr. Linda Van Le. ``There is obviously a need to pursue research to find better ways to treat ovarian cancer.''

Ovarian cancer is difficult to discover because there is no screening test as there is for breast and other cancers that affect women. About 85 percent of the women who develop ovarian cancer are in advanced stages when it is discovered, said Dr. Wesley ``Butch'' Fowler, UNC Hospitals' chief of gynecology oncology. The surgery and radiation therapy is regarded as among the toughest of all cancer treatments.

Hatchell, 48, first learned of the possibility of cancer in May after routine gynecological tests. She checked her voice mail May 10 while in the Atlanta airport and got a message that she needed to see a doctor at UNC Hospitals' gynecologic oncology department.

``Everything happened so fast,'' she said. ``When I heard that word — oncology. That means cancer.''

She remembered seeing Dean Smith seated near her on the airplane and thinking of all he had accomplished as a coach. But ``at that point in time, that didn't mean much to me ... because the possibility of what was happening,'' she said.

When she returned to Chapel Hill, Hatchell had more tests and an ultrasound revealed an enlarged ovary and ovarian cyst wall abnormalities, which made doctors suspect cancer.

She told only her husband and, hours later, was was off to New Zealand and Australia with the team to play exhibition games.

``We had a great time and I tried to put all this out of my mind,'' she said. The players didn't learn about her situation until after it was all over.

During her visits to the gynecology oncology department, Hatchell would look around the waiting room at the other patients — some wearing wigs, hats or bandanas to cover their bare heads.

``When you sit there and see that you realize this could be happening to me. That's a dose of reality when that happens to you,'' she said.

In the surgery June 8, doctors removed Hatchell's uterus, cervix and both ovaries but didn't find what they had feared.

Even before Hatchell opened her eyes after the procedure was over, she heard the good news.

``I remember someone saying ... it was benign.''