Purdue Challenge holds special meaning to women's hoops staff

Kyle Charters, GoldandBlack.com staff
Gold and Black
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Purdue

Saturday will mean more for Purdue women’s basketball staff.

It’s a small group of fighters and survivors.

So when the Boilermakers participate in The Challenge 5K, a fundraiser for the Purdue Center For Cancer Research, it’s more than only an event. It’s a calling. Because on Purdue’s coaching staff are a breast cancer survivor, assistant Beth Couture; a stomach cancer survivor, director of operations Terry Kix; and Coach Sharon Versyp, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I would hope that’s rare,” Couture said of having a high occurrence rate in such a small pocket of people. “But that word, (cancer), you hear it more than you want to hear it. Probably in some way, every family has been affected. I don’t know how much you can say cancer is rare any more.”

And that’s why Purdue’s fight for a cure is so important to so many. The Challenge helps; in its nine years of existence, the event, which attracts around 2,000 runners and walkers every April, has raised more than $604,000 for cancer research at Purdue. (For more on The Challenge, including donation and registration information, click HERE).

The Boilermaker women’s team has been particularly hit by the disease, the latest being to its head coach. Versyp came public with her diagnosis in early March, just before the start of the NCAA Tournament, when she let her team and others know that she had early stage of a type of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

She’s seeking treatment options this month, the last being an opinion at prestigious Sloan Kettering in New York, before choosing how to proceed. But in the meantime, she thought a public disclosure, rather than dealing with the illness privately, could help others.

“The awareness is huge,” she said. “If I didn’t do mammograms every year … this (diagnosis) is bad enough, it could be a lot worse. I think that’s very important. All over the country, as women’s basketball coaches, we try to teach our kids the right things and be great role models and show the face of adversity.”

Couture felt the same more than seven years ago, when she started her cancer battle. Then the head coach at Butler, Purdue’s second-year assistant had chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, a physically-taxing regimen, and she’s been cancer-free since.

But the emotions of her battle remain. And they’ll likely come up again on Saturday, when she serves as the emcee of the post-race awards ceremony. Over the years, she’s done similar events, like at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis or at other speaking engagements.

Earlier this season, she and Kix told their stories to the current Boilermakers before Purdue’s cancer awareness game.

“As coaches, you have more of a platform and people want you out, talking and that’s how you give back,” Couture said. “But mainly, it’s just to help people, so any chance I get, whether it’s financial or just speaking or just supporting, I’m really happy to do so.

“It’s personal. And for me, going on eight years, it brings it all back to the surface. It’s emotional. You feel for anybody that has to go through any part of cancer, whether it’s the person or the caregivers or the family or our basketball team.”

All were involved in helping Kix through her personal battle during the 2012-13 season, when she was diagnosed then had to survive through aggressive chemotherapy. The Boilermakers won the Big Ten Tournament title that season, dedicating the run to one of their closest allies.

And those emotions were brought back in March, when Versyp was diagnosed during a routine checkup.

“Initially, I think everybody was just shocked,” Kix said. “This is their Wonder Woman. Sharon is always the strong one for all of us. When I went through my situation, she was an absolute rock.

“Now we have to support her, be behind her and we have to fight for her.”

Versyp says she feels the love. Many will at The Challenge on Saturday.

“I’ve always been a proponent of supporting cancer research my entire life and it will continue what I’m doing,” said Versyp, whose mother died of leukemia 17 years ago. “But people have given me some of the things they carried with them, personal things, little cards or pink ribbons, and I will carry (those) until my journey is close to being done with treatment.

"Those really touch your heart. But it’s been in the back of my mind every day and now, obviously, I’m living it.”

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