Gorman: Cancer scare has Burt seeing 'simple beauty of life'
One day after celebrating a well-deserved contract extension, Dan Burt was sobbing in the driveway outside his Robinson home.
At 4:18 p.m. on Monday, July 2 — his recollection is that precise — the Duquesne women's basketball coach received a phone call informing him that he had high-grade, middle-stage papillary urothelial carcinoma, an aggressive form of bladder cancer.
Imagine that 24-hour rollercoaster ride.
“That was a devastating moment,” Burt said. “You sit there and cry in the driveway, then have to collect yourself.”
Burt, a 44-year-old father of two, had gone to a consultation for a vasectomy, a simple but cringeworthy procedure, and came away with a cancer diagnosis. His is a story where the simple became complex until the complexities were simplified.
Blood was discovered in his urine, which led to more blood work, CT scans and a pair of invasive procedures that turned his world upside down the past two weeks.
A dynamic recruiter who served as Suzie McConnell-Serio's assistant, Burt was promoted when she left for Pitt and led the Dukes to a 43-24 record in his first two seasons.
The Dukes responded to what was supposed to be a rebuilding year last season with 23 wins, third-best in school history, and a school-best 12 wins in the Atlantic 10.
On July 1, Duquesne announced that Burt had earned the two-year extension.
“It was a celebration for myself and my staff. This is where we want to be,” Burt, a Washington, Pa., native, said of Duquesne. “I said to somebody, ‘You'd have to carry me out of here in a box.' The next day, I thought, ‘I might be in a box.”
After revealing the cancer diagnosis to assistant coaches Eddie Benton, Matt Schmidt and Rachel Wojdowski, he sent them on the road to recruit.
“You never want to hear that,” Benton said. “It's a deadly disease. Initially, you think the worst.”
Burt was doing just that while putting on a brave face for friends and family: wife, Kata, and sons Soma, 10, who understood the gravity, and Milan, 4, who didn't.
“I've tried to be positive about the whole thing,” Burt said. “When I told the players, I was like, ‘I'm fine. I'm going to be OK.' I've tried to portray that the whole time, that I'm healthy and this is a mistake...”
Deep down, though, he was worried. “... But there's always that thought in the back of your mind,” Burt said, with a shudder. “My goodness.”
Especially after researching bladder cancer and reading a 55-page PDF from Johns Hopkins Hospital that people his age have a 43 percent chance of survival.
Burt turned to Duquesne's team physician, Dr. Eric Anish, who referred him to respected urologist Dr. Jodi Maranchie of UPMC Shadyside Hospital for a second opinion. A screening revealed that his bladder was “pristine,” a description he'll never forget.
After surgery Monday to do biopsies on his bladder and muscle around it, kidneys and urethral tubes — and, why not?, the vasectomy — Burt got great news.
No cancer was found.
Burt was told that suspicious cells might have caused the cancer scare, and will require that he is tested every six months for the next three years. But Burt is cancer-free, and he shared the good news with a Facebook post from his phone at 4:44 p.m. Tuesday: “Today, I was given a clean bill of health. No cancer. Why tell everyone? Because everyone should get a 2nd opinion, no matter the diagnosis. Guys, don't be a tough guy, go to the doctor for a complete physical, especially if you (are) over 40. And, see the simple beauty of life every day.”
The simple beauty of hearing his children's laughter, of enjoying driving through town with the windows down and the wind blowing in his face, of coaching basketball.
“If it helps one person, so be it,” Burt said of sharing his story. “I've always lived my life pretty open. It's nice to see the outpouring of people saying, ‘You're not that bad of a guy.'
“That's exactly what it does. It puts your life in perspective.”
At Duquesne, where the men's basketball program has had its own battles with cancer — from guard Derrick Coulter to assistant coach John Rhodes — there is hope that the newfound perspective permeates throughout a coaching profession where the stress of long hours, travel, poor diets and poor exercise habits can be such a cause for concern that interim athletic director Phil Racicot jokes that it should sometimes be called the un-athletic department.
“Getting a coach in general to take care of themselves is one thing. They're just wired in such a way that it's hard to get them to put the brakes on,” said Racicot, whose parents are both cancer survivors. “I told Dan, ‘This isn't about the team, the game, the recruit. This is about your health and your future.' We let him know that you're not on an island, that you don't have to go through this alone. The focus is on you and your health and the family.”
Adds Wojdowski, whose mother is a nurse: “That's the most important lesson: Your health is important. Don't think you're too busy to go see a doctor.”
Or, as Dan Burt says, to see the simple beauty of life every day.
Of being healthy, and living that way.