As head coach of the Syracuse University basketball team, Jim Boeheim has a long record of victories. He needs to win just one more game next season to score another milestone: 800 career wins. He’s been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, led S.U. to seven Big East championships, and helped the U.S. team capture a gold medal in the Beijing summer Olympics. But the biggest battle Jim ever fought was off the court after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Men’s Fitness got a chance to talk to Jim about how he kicked the disease, led Syracuse University to the national championships just 16 months later, and what you can do to keep from becoming the one in six men who will get prostate cancer.
MF: Was it tough for you to leave mid-season back in winter ’01 when you were diagnosed with cancer?
JB: No, because I didn’t really have a choice. Waiting could make it worse, so I flew to St. Louis for treatment right away. My doctor thought the best thing to do was to remove the prostate. If you’re diagnosed, you have to figure out the right treatment for you, and then just take care of it.
You missed only 10 days of the season. The very next season, you coached Freshman Carmelo Anthony and led Syracuse to beat Kansas for the NCAA championships. How did you bounce back so quickly?
Like with anything you go through, the best thing is to keep moving and get right back into the game. I’m competitive, so I’d rather be coaching my team instead of watching them play on television. And since I caught the disease early, I didn’t need chemo so my recovery was quick. I felt as good as I ever did within three months.
Do fans affected by cancer ever ask for your advice?
I get calls from guys who have been diagnosed all the time. They’re afraid, and want to know what it’s like to have prostate cancer and how to get through it. There are too many stories out there about all the bad things that can happen. The only problem with prostate cancer is if you don’t catch it early and it spreads.
What can guys do to catch it early?
You should start getting screened at 45, and younger if you’re having issues with an enlarged prostate. The simplest screening is a blood test called the PSA. It measures prostate specific antigens in your blood. Like with golf, you want your score to be low.
Your own dad died of prostate cancer. Did that motivate you to see your doctor sooner?
Yeah, I don’t think guys back then got regular physicals. I started getting a physical every year after I turned 40. When I had issues with an enlarged prostate, I got tested right away. Too much of cancer happens after the fact, but once you get diagnosed you can treat it. There are so many more treatment options now, and surgery has come a long way from where it was years ago. Guys today are much more likely to get cured with no problems. The bottom line is to get tested, and then you have the chance to come out just fine. I think it’s important to raise money for guys who can’t afford to get tested, because prostate cancer is very treatable if you catch it early.
Is that why you signed on as this year’s chairman for the Know Your Score, the annual campaign for Zero: The Project to End Prostate Cancer?
Yeah, Zero has a mobile clinic that gives men free prostate screens. We’re trying to lobby congress to get more funds for research, and we’re doing a celebrity golf tournament at the Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday to raise money.
You’ve also raised millions for Coaches vs. Cancer to help the American Cancer Society. How have you been able to accomplish so much both on and off the court?
Everyone has to have a professional life, but it’s what you do outside of work that’s important. I’ve been very lucky to have some success and be able to give back. It takes a lot of people to help. Without the support of the community-businesses to donate money and people who don’t have money to donate their time-my wife Juli and I wouldn’t be able to do it. I think everyone has an obligation to give back, and this is our way to help.
Coach on a Mission