LUNG FORCE Heroes
Joye Lee M.
My name is Joye Lee McNelis. I am 55 years old, a Christian, wife, mother of two, and a YaYa to Emma Grace, my little granddaughter. I am in the 14th season as the women's basketball coach at the University of Southern Mississippi and my 34th year overall. I have been in college basketball since I was 18 years old. I played at Southern Miss from 1980-1984 and served as an assistant coach at Southwest Texas, now Texas State University for who is now my husband, Dennis McNelis, of 29 years.
Then in 1991, I was named the head coach at Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis. My family and I were there for 13 years prior to returning to my alma mater, Southern Miss.
I believe that God called me to be a college coach -- to impact lives of young people. I am so blessed to have a wonderful husband Dennis and two children, Whitney and Connor, who have encouraged me while walking beside me through the challenges of this profession. It is my prayer to always lead, guide, and direct the people I come in contact with in a way that would be pleasing to God. I ask God daily for strength to persevere through whatever the day may bring. My parents taught my brothers and me to "never quit," outwork anyone, and to always give our best. This is truly the core of who I am. Blessed!
In December of 2016 I began to have symptoms of heart issues. I had pain between my shoulders and down my left arm, tingling in my jaw, and light headedness. We were in the middle of basketball season, and I did not have time to deal with these symptoms or what it could possibly be. My dad, Louis Lee, Sr., mom, Nell Lee, and brother, Louis Lee, Jr., have either had open heart surgery or stents put in. My dad and brother had heart attacks. I knew the symptoms and I felt as if it were my heart; therefore, I prayed for God to take control of the pain, and He would. I would take three aspirin to make my blood thin so I could persevere. As January began and we started Conference USA play, the symptoms seemed as if they were getting worse. However, I did not have time and I must "give my all" to our team so we could strive to win a championship.
On February 4, 2017, we were playing at Western Kentucky University, and following a timeout, I blacked out for just a second and stumbled. My staff caught me, and I looked to our trainer and asked for three aspirin. I continued to "press on" and give my best to our team. My body felt weird, so after the game and through the night, I kept aspirin in my system every four hours while traveling back to Hattiesburg.
On Sunday, I stayed in bed most of the day and knew that this may be something I should see a doctor about. My husband Dennis knew very little about my pain. I had not shared with anyone how I was feeling – I just felt God and I could take care of this. But on this day, I shared with him about what happened during the game at Western Kentucky and how I had been feeling. He said, "Joye, get to a doctor!" I said, "If I don’t feel better tomorrow, I will go."
On Monday during practice I felt lightheaded and was having pain. My team took notice and sat down and said "We are not practicing until you go to the doctor." I kept saying, "Ladies, I am fine – Let's go! I will go to the doctor after practice." However, I did not go to the doctor because after taking the three aspirin, I felt better.
My husband told me, "I know that you are only going to the doctor when you want to go, but I ask you to go for our family." On Tuesday, I decided I would go after practice. Honestly, I was feeling better but still had the tingling sensation in my face and arm. At 4:30 p.m. I went to Urgent Care to see our family friend. He ran some tests and through a chest x-ray saw something abnormal and thought it might be a blood clot. He told me he was going to call an ambulance. I said, "No way – I am fine; I can drive to the Emergency Room at Forrest General Hospital. I told him that I believed it was my heart and would be okay if I continued to take aspirin." He said, "Coach, let me be your doctor! Go to the hospital, and I will have everything set for you to undergo further testing."
From this point, my life seemed to take a turn in a direction I would have never imagined. I was told that I did not have a blood clot, but I had a nodule in the upper left lobe that brings some concern. God gives us an opportunity to live, and we must do everything to be "our best" while giving God the credit. Romans 8:28 came to my mind – "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." I continued my life as normal as if I were back on the court "coaching" and preparing our team for games against the University of San Antonio and the University of Texas at El Paso, along with my assistant coaches. The doctors said tomorrow we will do further testing, run different scans, and consult your pulmonologist. Against my will, I had to stay in the hospital.
The next morning the pulmonologist told my husband and me that there were two nodules – one in my left upper lobe and one in my right trapezius muscle. They needed to do a PET scan and biopsy them. I said, "Let's do it because I have a basketball team to coach and get ready for weekend games." Later in the day, the surgeon who did open heart surgery on my husband dropped by and said, "I want to do your surgery." I said, "Surgery?" He said, "You have lung cancer." As he was talking, I was thinking, NO WAY. I have never smoked nor been around smoke. Heart – yes – but not lung cancer. The pulmonologist came in to discuss our options. He suggested that we visit with a thoracic surgeon, in Jackson who would do the VATS (video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery). I could not get an appointment for a week or so. I contacted a family friend, a radiation oncologist, and asked him to look at my PET scan and make contact with the surgeon's office. Please know that God had His hand in this.
I knew it was time to share the news with my parents and brothers. I asked my brother Louis to bring mom and dad to see me, and I would share with them the news. As they walked into the hospital room, our pastor, executive pastor, and friends filled the room. My parents were anxious to know what was going on. After prayer, I shared with them my diagnosis. I assured them I was going to be okay and that God was in control. Our daughter, who is a nurse, was concerned, while our son Connor views me as being "super mom" and always felt that nothing was going to happen to me that I couldn't overcome.
After leaving the hospital, I went to meet my team and staff to share my news. It was difficult for me to hold my emotions. Fortunately, God took me by the hand and helped me through it. My prayer was for this situation to impact their lives to better understand that God is in control.
As I was having another scan on Monday, February 13, at Hattiesburg Clinic, I met a lady who told my husband that her father had had surgery by the same surgeon and she would make a call for us. As I completed the scan, she and the doctor had scheduled an appointment for me on Thursday, February 16, with the surgeon. God tells us He will meet all of our needs, and He just did.
On Monday following the scan, I met with my team and staff to share the news and say that I would be taking a "leave of absence" from the team. I told them that God placed great assistant coaches in my life, and they would lead them to victories. On Thursday, February 16, my husband and I met with the surgeon and his staff. He discussed my options for surgery. As I am someone who thinks "I will be fine and press on," I asked him to do surgery on Monday, February 29, so I could be back on the sideline coaching for the C-USA tournament. He adamantly said, "NO." If coaching the rest of the season and in the tournament is that important, we can put off surgery until your season is over. At this time, we set surgery for March 22 because I believed our team "The Southern Miss Lady Eagles" would play in postseason play. And we did! After losing in the C-USA championship game to Western Kentucky, we were selected to play in the Women's National Invitational Tournament (WNIT). After losing to Arkansas Little Rock in the first round, surgery was confirmed for March 22, 2016.
On March 21, my husband Dennis, my parents Louis & Nell Lee, my close friend Donna Stewart, and Sharon & Kevin Shaw traveled to Jackson to be with me prior to and during the surgery. Our daughter Whitney and son-in-law Michael joined us after they got off work. There were other friends like Miriam Thames and Martha Morris who joined us for a "prayer time" in the breakfast area of the hotel the night before surgery. With tears flowing during prayers, I felt as if God was in the room with us. I am so blessed to have people in my life who prayed with me and for me.
On the morning of March 22, I felt at peace. I was a little nervous about the needles but believed that the surgery would be fine. As my husband and I sat waiting for the surgery, my surgeon came in to discuss my situation. It was shocking information, but I was okay with it. He told us the nodule in my trap muscle brought concern to him, and they were going to do another biopsy. They would wait for the biopsy results prior to starting surgery. If the biopsy was positive, he would not do surgery; he would re-evaluate because I would have stage 4 cancer. Praise the Lord, the biopsy was negative! The surgery was "on." He removed 27 lymph notes and the upper left lobe of my lung.
In recovery he shared with us the great news – no treatments would be necessary and that he got all of the cancer. As I sat in a chair beside the bed in ICU, I felt exhausted. I told him, "Doc, I have to get in the bed. I have been up since 5 a.m. and it is 9:30 p.m." He said, "You are not in charge; you cannot get in bed; you must sit in the chair." I was in ICU for two days and vaguely remember my time in there. I am thankful for this because the thought of a chest tube, other tubes, and needles in me are not what I enjoy. After getting in the room, I was on some strong pain medication; as a result, I dreamed I had 100 cats, told them to sit, raise their right paw, and salute me. When I came to my senses, I told my family "This medicine has to go. I don't like to feel like I am crazy and not in control." The medicine had to be changed.
I was blessed with visitors -- family friends, teammates, former players, coaching staff, and former administrators. Texts, calls, emails, social media messages showed how God had his hand in all of this. God is our great physician. He answered prayers and gave our family comfort in knowing that many people were praying.
On March 16 (Saturday), my husband and I returned home to start the road to recovery – God is good. He has told me to use cancer and basketball as a platform to share with others what He has done for me. In Isaiah 41:10 God tell us, "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." My husband and I were blessed with our family, pastor, church family, players, and some administrators who prayed and encouraged us through this time. Today, I am so thankful for God's healing grace and the many blessings He has given us. I am full steam ahead striving to give my best to all. I get tired, short of breath, and have some pain; but I know people are praying and God will continue to direct my steps.
First published: January 10, 2018
American Lung Association is solely responsible for content.
Hero stories are the point of view of the Hero and not necessarily the American Lung Association. The Lung Association does not endorse any specific provider, facility or treatment.