Joye Lee-McNelis, the Head Coach of Southern Miss women’s basketball team, announced on Jan. 9 that she has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
Lee-McNelis announced the news before Southern Miss played its second game against UAB on Saturday. She previously overcame a battle with adenocarcinoma in 2017, but realized something was wrong after contracting COVID-19 last November.
“I was really, really sick with COVID[,] and so that’s what honestly we thought it was,” Lee-McNelis said. “And then, I went in for my three-month checkup from having lung cancer previously and [they found] there was fluid in the pleural area of my lung, which [is] the lining of my lungs. It had tripled with COVID.”
After a series of tests in between the start of the team’s conference schedule, Lee-McNelis discovered that her cancer had come back. She says she was emotionally challenged initially, but must fight through what she describes as “a storm”.
“We were just a wreck emotionally and it was really, really hard,” Lee-McNelis said. “That’s what I just told the players. […] I am faced with a storm. Do I let the storm engulf me, no I can’t. I can’t because I am at Southern Miss to help you develop in every aspect of your life, to learn that when you face storms, that you have to be able to fight them and you’ve got to rise above. When you have two granddaughters like Emma Grace and Caroline, I want them to remember their yaw-yaw as somebody that never quit fighting [and] that was able to rise above.”
Lee-McNelis says she has started to feel the effects of the disease, which she originally thought were symptoms of COVID.
“We thought it was COVID. I would get some short breath in practice and one of them [players] would grab the rolling chair and say ‘Coach, you’ve got to sit down and get some water,’” Lee-McNelis said. “They were very protective of me during that time before we ever knew this and so, I appreciate their concern [and] their family has reached out and done a lot of praying for us.”
Lee-McNelis says that she has now started to listen to her body more and understand her limits while fighting this relapse.
“I’m not one that has done a very good job of listening to my body, but I will tell you, this has made me listen to my body,” Lee-McNelis said.
Despite the struggles, Lee-McNelis stays determined to continue coaching at Southern Miss.
“People ask me am I going to coach, yeah, because you know what, I made a commitment to this university,” Lee-McNelis said. “I love this university, I played here, and my goal to come here was to give everything I’ve got to be able to try to get us to an NCAA Tournament and we’ve not been able to do that. We’ve been to NIT, but we’ve got to get there. It may not be this year[,] but we’ve got to be able to continue to fight that fight and I want to make this university proud. The last thing I ever want to do is disappoint somebody that gave me an opportunity.”
Lee-McNelis says she now awaits the next steps that will determine her treatment.
“They took the biopsy from the fluid that’s in the lining of my lung and they sent it to Jackson to be able to see if they can match molecules from my first cancer to my second cancer and if they can match […] it goes through foundation one and it’s divisional mutation,” Lee-McNelis said. “And that’s what our prayer has to be is because that is so important because the treatments that I will have to take will not be as difficult, so we want that treatment. We’re not going to know that for 10 business days because that’s how long it takes with the molecules.”
Lee-McNelis says she is staying faithful and asks for prayers as she continues to fight.
“I believe in God, I believe in the power of His healing and I just pray that a lot of people will continue to pray so that we can overcome,” Lee-McNelis said.