JACKSONVILLE — Color Tommy Wade a fan of yellow, at least for one night.
Even on special Princess Lacey’s Legacy laces he and the rest of Jacksonville State’s men’s basketball staff wore on gray-and-red Adidas shoes during the Gamecocks’ 67-63 loss to Tennessee-Martin on Thursday, yellow looked beautiful.
It’s Coaches vs. Cancer Suits and Sneakers Week, and Wade began Thursday as he has every day for 12 years … tapping his left arm and a tattoo, which includes the date April 21, 2005. It was the day doctors in Owensboro, Ky., diagnosed him with stage 4 colon cancer.
Since Jan. 3, 2006, he’s lived as a cancer survivor.
“It’s a little extra special for me tonight,” said the veteran coach and second-year assistant at JSU, set to turn 61 on Feb. 2.
Then again, every day is extra special for Wade, whose health struggles prompted friend and former Kentucky star Rex Chapman to proclaim Wade has “11 lives” while speaking to JSU’s team during the Gamecocks’ recent road trip through Kentucky.
While working as an assistant at Oklahoma State in 2015, Wade suffered a heart attack on his campus jogging route. It left him unconscious on scorching summer asphalt.
When he woke up from a coma 40 days later, he learned of the heart attack that nearly killed him and burns that left permanent scars on his back and the backs of his legs and arms.
That came 10 years after his eight-month battle against colon cancer, which started in Kentucky and played out after he followed JSU head coach Ray Harper from Kentucky Wesleyan to Oklahoma City University. Wade underwent major surgery remove a golf-ball-sized tumor and endured 48 hours of continuous chemotherapy every two weeks, until doctors informed him they could find no signs of cancer.
He lost 40 pounds, partly because chemo medication zapped his appetite, even his ability to taste food. He never lost his taste for living, however, and continued to coach through the ordeal. He made long team bus trips and wore chemo packs during practice.
The Hopkinsville, Ky., native’s story has been featured in multiple publications, including The Star in March of 2017, as JSU prepared for its first NCAA tournament appearance as a Division I program.
The day his fight against cancer ended, his life as a survivor began. For two years, he had to see his oncologist every six months. At 12 years out, he sees an oncologist annually for a full PET scan and will for the rest of his life.
About a week out from each annual scan, fear of cancer’s return returns to the back of his mind.
“Sure, you’re starting to stress out about it,” he said. “You’re starting to get nervous, because you never know.”
Wade said five years is a “magic number” for colon cancer. If it hasn’t returned by then, patients typically have beaten it, doctors say.
“I feel great,” he said. “There’s not been, ever, any signs of, do you think it’s back.”
Wade said he benefited from “a lot of positive” people during his cancer battle, including coaching colleagues. He pays it forward.
A good friend he grew up with in Kentucky was diagnosed with colon cancer a year ago, and “he’s not doing very well, right now,” Wade said. That friend calls Wade about once a month.
“I think it does him good, and it does me good that we can share some stories about his chemo and some of the side effects that he’s going through now,” Wade said.
That friend plans to attend JSU’s game at Austin Peay, near Hopkinsville, on Feb. 17.
Wade’s fiancé, Jeannie Alexander, is “doing well” after double mastectomy, chemo and radiation treatments that ended in July of last year, he said.
“When it’s somebody that you know, and there are several people that I’ve known … that have been diagnosed with some kind of cancer,” Wade said. “They always call me. I’m the first to always be there when I can help somebody.”
Wade describes himself as “a man of faith.” He said he’s well aware others don’t beat cancer and considers himself “truly blessed every single day.”
“Life is good,” he said. “I think I’m the most blessed man in the world, because I’m getting to do what I love doing. I’m at a place I love being at. I love Jacksonville State. I’m around good people here at this university, and I’m healthy.”