Ever since women’s basketball Head Coach Joye Lee-McNelis announced her stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, the collegiate community has rallied together locally and nationally in support.
Southern Miss Athletics started the #McNelisStrong campaign on Jan. 22 in response to a massive outpour of support for Lee-McNelis. The athletic department, to add to the #McNelisStrong campaign, now offers silicone wristbands with “#McNelisStrong” and “tough as nails” written on them.
According to Southern Miss Athletics, the athletic department has given out more than 1,500 #McNelisStrong wristbands as of Feb. 5.
Around 30 women’s college basketball teams across the country have shown their support for #McNelisStrong by wearing these wristbands, as well as t-shirts and ribbons, at games. These supporters exist all over Conference USA and beyond, including Southeastern Conference colleges Alabama and Arkansas.
“I am very humbled. I don’t know that I deserve all the support that people have given me and our family and this program,” Lee-McNelis said about the program after the Lady Eagles’ last home-series against UTSA. “It’s been quite surprising to me. I am very humbled and thankful and I am very blessed because what I think that it does [is] it gives me an opportunity to say that life is not guaranteed, that God gives us a life and we need to take advantage of every opportunity because we don’t know when that day is going to come.”
Lee-McNelis says she is also grateful that she can use her platform to raise awareness and education about lung cancer.
“I am a non-smoker and a lot of females that have lung cancer are non-smokers. And so[,] for adenocarcinoma, it does bring attention to that for other women, and men, just to be aware [about the risks] of lung cancer,” Lee-McNelis said.
As a part of her goal to raise awareness, Lee-McNelis began working with Forrest General’s Patient Navigation Program. Southern Miss announced the partnership on Feb. 4, and opened a donation line to the program in honor of Lee-McNelis.
The Patient Navigation Program (PNP) has served cancer patients at Forrest General since 2017. The PNP provides an oncology patient navigator to assist patients throughout their cancer treatment process. Martha Dearman, executive director of the Forrest General Healthcare Foundation, explains the program’s purpose.
“It is there to be a guiding light for our cancer patients,” Dearman said. “When you come in and hear those words that you have cancer, a lot of times it’s hard to even process anything else that’s going on […] and so the patient navigator is there. They can help […] understand some of the test results or maybe the tests that you’re going to be having to help you work through logistical [or] scheduling issues. If you’re facing barriers to care[,] which is so big and happens so often because cancer treatment is so expensive, they are there to help you find the resources to maybe alleviate those barriers to receive the treatment that you need.”
Dearman says McNelis formed the partnership after her daughter, a nurse practitioner, told her about the obstacles many cancer patients face in receiving treatment.
“Joye just decided that she wanted to use her voice to try to make a difference and try to help patients that aren’t as lucky as she is as far as having the ability to receive her treatment,” Dearman said. “She’s so gracious, she always gives back and practices what she preaches. She was taught it as a child, and she has let that guide her life[. …] I was honored to be able to work with her as closely as I’ve been.”
Dearman says the response to the partnership has been “tremendous”, and that the donations and heightened awareness will help PNP’s impact.
“It’s amazing [that,] if you can just remove small barriers, the difference that can make in a patient and their family’s life[,] because that’s just a journey that’s so difficult to go down and to follow,” Dearman said. “If someone is doing anything to help just alleviate one possible barrier, the impacts are tremendous.”
You can request a wristband by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be made to the Forrest General Cancer Center’s Patient Navigation Program directly by texting “GIVE” to 1-833-585-8650 or online at https://fghfoundation.com/coach.