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Coach Refuses to Give Cancer the Advantage

Kim Jagd followed all the rules. A former UCLA volleyball player, she was active and upbeat, mixing vigorous workouts into a busy life as a divorced mother of two and assistant coach of the Bruins’ women’s volleyball team.

Jagd -- pronounced “Jade” -- was puzzled when she couldn’t shake fatigue and aches in her joints late last year. Blood tests found nothing amiss, and doctors wrote off her complaints to years of athletic overuse.

So she forgot about it -- until the morning she reached across her body and felt a grape-sized lump in her breast.

In March, a few months before her 42nd birthday, Jagd learned she had cancer. She had always derived her identity from her athleticism, but her body had betrayed her, taking her on an unpredictable journey to an unknown destination.

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“I’ve had five knee surgeries and shoulder surgery and I know what it’s like to bounce back from things, but this is different,” she said. “An ACL doesn’t cause life-threatening consequences, normally.

“With this, there’s the fear and the humility of the whole thing, always being exposed to every single person that you see, everywhere that you go. It’s humbling, the whole process.”

She cried for six hours when she heard the news. “Absolute sadness at first, then fear,” she said. “ ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ ”

She could have yielded to the terror that accompanied cancer’s invasion of her body. And there were days after chemotherapy when she was too ill to move off her couch or ingest more than a few drops of water or a cracker. Days when her mother, Ruthann, cared for her and her father, Ryal, who has had four forms of cancer.

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But a meek surrender would have invalidated her life and sent the wrong message to the young women she coaches, including her daughter, Nikki.

“I want to handle it well. I want to be a role model for the girls,” Jagd said last week in her cheerfully cluttered campus office.

“This is part of life. It’s going to happen to somebody in their family or somewhere along the line in their lives and they’ve got to be strong and know you can go on and keep working and keep contributing to your work or your society, or whatever it is that you’re involved in.”

Jagd was relatively lucky. Her cancer was Stage 1, the least menacing. She underwent a lumpectomy and lost only one lymph node.

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Still, she endured 24 weeks of chemotherapy that caused her blond hair to fall out in devastating handfuls. She and her son, also named Ryal, shaved each other’s heads in mutual support. She took to wearing hats and made a talisman of a purple hat sent from Ohio by her best friend.

“That was my chemo warrior hat,” Jagd said. “I wore that every time I went there.”

She wore it not to hide anything, but to be visible. To show the world she was no less than she had been before, even if some people didn’t recognize her and others fumbled for words. One of her friends hasn’t called since her diagnosis.

“I’m sure she’s petrified and doesn’t know how to handle it and I don’t blame her for that, because I understand,” Jagd said. “I guess people are kind of embarrassed that I’m sick and they think it’s contagious. Or that I might say something really devastatingly sad if they say, ‘How are you?’ like I might say, ‘I’m going to die tomorrow.’ ”

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Her family and her athletes were a wellspring of strength. A few days after her diagnosis, the team gave her a scrapbook filled with drawings, photos of her children and encouraging messages. One girl filled a page with pictures of smiles cut out from magazines. The cover was adorned with a pink ribbon, the symbol of the fight against breast cancer.

“At the very beginning she was struggling a little bit, but she got so much support and she just got stronger and stronger as time went on,” said daughter Nikki, a sophomore setter for the Bruins. “It’s amazing how strong she got, and it made me stronger to see her fighting it.”

Jagd’s openness was a relief to her players, some of whom are sadly familiar with the disease. Senior Colby Lyman, an outside hitter, had supported her mother, Linley, through a mastectomy. Jordan Smith, a sophomore libero, had lost a friend, Andi Collins, to inflammatory breast cancer at 16.

“We decided that her sickness would make us a whole new team,” Smith said. “What she was going through made us all want to fight harder for each other and be there for each other and I think until this day, that’s what’s gotten us through this season and helped us be so successful.”

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Lyman relied on her experiences and her mother’s recovery to assure Nikki that better days would come.

“We all had to be there for Kim and for one another, because at times, girls would see Kim and have a hard time with it,” Lyman said. “We had to not only be there for her, but be there for our own teammates.”

The fourth-ranked Bruins are thriving, 20-1 as they prepare to face USC, 18-1 and ranked fifth, at the Lyon Center on Friday. Jagd is doing well too and has resumed working out. She’s four weeks into a seven-week course of radiation and will then take tamoxifen, a drug that suppresses the growth of cancer cells, for five years. If all goes well, she said, she will have a 93% chance of avoiding a recurrence.

Her hair is growing back, bristly but beautiful. She ditched the hats. “I went down the hair-care products aisle for the first time in seven months at the grocery store over the weekend,” she said proudly. “I bought some gel to see what I can do with my little thing.”

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She has allowed herself to look beyond the immediate, to think that when her son graduates from Palos Verdes High in June she might seek a head coaching job after assisting Andy Banachowski for 14 years.

“I assume that I’m hireable. Who knows?” she said. “I don’t know how employers view coaches with breast cancer. Maybe they don’t view them as hireable.”

Anyone who sees her as only a coach with breast cancer is missing a lot.

“I’m going to do everything in my power,” she said, “to see my kids get married and see my grandchildren.”

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helene.elliott@latimes.com


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