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Duquesne assistant Rhodes back after battle with skin cancer

| Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, 10:54 p.m.
Duquesne men's basketball assistant coach John Rhodes smiles through tears Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, as he talks to the media about the support he has received from family, friends and the university during his battle with cancer and a broken leg he suffered as the result of being hit by a car in Philadelphia last year.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Duquesne men's basketball assistant coach John Rhodes smiles through tears Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, as he talks to the media about the support he has received from family, friends and the university during his battle with cancer and a broken leg he suffered as the result of being hit by a car in Philadelphia last year.

John Rhodes never asked, “Why me?” although if ever a person had a right to wonder, it was him.

Believing mumps to be the cause of swelling in his neck, the Duquesne men's assistant basketball coach instead received a diagnosis of cancer on Feb. 13 – squamous cell carcinoma, stage four.

On Feb. 17, Rhodes set up a treatment plan that would begin six days later because the sooner they started, the better. Later that same day, Rhodes was hit by a car crossing the street in Philadelphia, where the Dukes were to play La Salle the following day. He suffered a neck injury and two broken bones in his left leg for which he would need immediate surgery.

“Why didn't this guy see me?” Rhodes said. “I'm 6-foot-9, and before I got sick I was maybe a bit away from 300 pounds, and I got hit in the middle of daylight. So I thought to myself why'd that happen, but I never really said why me. Things happen for a reason.”

Rhodes would have an additional six-hour surgery on the leg to insert two plates and a rod on Feb. 23, the day he was supposed to begin a series of 35 radiation treatments and seven weekly chemotherapy sessions. He didn't return to Pittsburgh until Feb. 27 and didn't begin treatment until March 4, now unsure how his body would react after the trauma of the accident.

Even today his leg still isn't fully healed. His tongue is still swollen, which affects his speech, and his appetite and taste buds are only slowly coming back. His clothes still hang loose on his body as he tries to gain back some of the 80 pounds he lost while using a feeding tube because he couldn't swallow.

But in late April, he got the diagnosis for which he and so many others had prayed. The tumor was gone, and the cancer hadn't spread.

On Thursday afternoon, Rhodes was back where he belonged, on the court at Palumbo Center helping lead basketball practice. What it will feel like to be there when the Dukes tip off next month, Rhodes couldn't say.

“The number of people who supported me I'm sure will come out and be there like they have been,” he said, choking up. “I hope I can keep it together.”

The lowest point, Rhodes said, was when he first heard the “C” word. He described the moment as most do, that after you hear that word you hear nothing else. He wondered where he'd go from there. He wondered how to tell his wife and children.

But he never let himself go down the road of possible outcomes. For him, there was only one.

“You can't walk into it thinking this may not work, because it is what it is and it's got to work,” he said.

Having to be first in a wheelchair then a walker then crutches throughout wasn't easy. Being away from the team also was difficult. He'd Facetime the players and coaches and send motivational texts before games. Their visits and the support he received from the extended Duquesne basketball family helped.

If there was an upside, it was that Rhodes didn't experience the awful side effects that can come with chemo and radiation. He rarely felt sick, he said, and he could feel the tumor on his neck shrinking.

Head coach Jim Ferry said through it all Rhodes remained the same relentlessly positive person he's always been. Rhodes simply wasn't going to lose, Ferry said, and that's a lesson he and the players will take with them the rest of their lives.

“The things we talk about all the time, about having mental toughness, about having a positive mental approach, it played out in real life in front of these guys to see how John attacked it and to see how he never gave in,” Ferry said. “There were days when I'd see him and say, ‘I wish I could take this day for you,' and he'd say, ‘Come on, man, I got it.' That was his answer. I don't know if I would have had the strength to deal with it the way he dealt with it.”

Now, Rhodes said, he wants to help others and be an example. He hopes his experience will not only influence how others face obstacles in their lives but inspire people to help support the search for a cure, such as through Coaches vs. Cancer.

“I have the opportunity to stand up and be a 6-foot-9 billboard and say this is why you should give support, because this can happen,” Rhodes said. “That's my goal, to help make a difference.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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