Colon Cancer Survivor

Mizzou coaching legend chosen for cancer survivorship honor, read about his latest award.

These days, Mizzou’s Norm Stewart is “stormin’” against cancer

Former University of Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart insists that having bleeding ulcers in 1989-90 was a good thing.

Back then, “Stormin’” Norm was at the top of his game as head coach of the Mizzou men’s basketball team, having coached the Tigers to a school-record 29 wins in the 1988-89 season.

But Norm’s life changed dramatically in the midst of the 1989-90 season, on the day he and his team journeyed to Norman, Okla. to play the University of Oklahoma Sooners. As the plane climbed higher into the sky, Norm became extremely dizzy. Then he collapsed.

Fearing it was a heart attack, the pilot made an emergency landing in Oklahoma City, and Norm was rushed to a hospital. But it wasn’t a heart attack. The next day, Norm flew back to Columbia, Mo. and entered the hospital for more tests. In a strange twist of fate, his wife, Virginia, had already been admitted to the same hospital for surgery.

The couple soon heard the good news that Virginia didn’t have cancer. But then they learned that Norm did. It was colorectal cancer, already spread to one nearby lymph node.

In addition, the coach had bleeding ulcers, which he calls “the fortunate thing of this tragedy.” The ulcers were affected by the plane’s changing altitude, Norm says. “If I hadn’t passed out from them, the colon cancer would have remained undiscovered — and it would have spread beyond the one lymph node that already was cancerous.”

Norm says he was blindsided by the colon cancer diagnosis. About six months earlier he’d had a sigmoidoscopy to check for the disease. But unlike the colonoscopy that’s now used to find colon cancer, the sigmoidoscopy didn’t reach the part of the colon where Norm’s cancer grew.

Norm missed the final 14 games of the basketball season to undergo surgery and six months of chemotherapy. He has now been cancer-free for many years.

He returned to Mizzou the following season and coached for many more years, garnering college coach of the year honors from the Associated Press and five other organizations in 1994. He retired in 1999. In 2007, he received college basketball’s highest honor -— induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

A new perspective

While he still loved coaching, Norm says his cancer experience changed his outlook on life.

“I love basketball, and I’m so proud that I got to coach for 43 years,” he says. “But to go through the cancer experience yourself, and to have your friends get cancer and know what they’re going through, puts everything in a new perspective.”

Part of that perspective is a great respect for people battling cancer. “We generally recognize stars and heroes in the athletic world, but I’ve learned that if you really want to see some heroes, go to a chemo room,” Norm says. “I’m impressed with the courage, drive and desire of people with cancer who are trying to get better and who are, for the most part, in good spirits.”

He’s passionate about colorectal cancer prevention, research and early diagnosis. He’s also concerned that so many people at risk don’t get tested for the disease.

“The amazing thing is that people often will not have the colonoscopy” to check for colorectal cancer, he says. “Fear is a factor -— fear of the test itself and of the result.”

“If we could get three groups of people — those 50 or older, those with a family history of colon cancer and those with symptoms of colon cancer — to take the test, nearly 50,000 people might still be alive next year because they did the test and stopped the cancer early,” he says.

“Stormin’” against cancer

Norm was instrumental in establishing the program now known as Coaches vs. Cancer, a team effort of the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). At Mizzou, Norm challenged fans to pledge money to ACS for every three points made by his team during the season. At his urging, the ACS and NABC adopted the concept in 1993 and expanded it nationwide. Now, more than 500 Division I, II and III college basketball coaches are involved, Stewart says, as well as a constantly growing number of high school coaches.

The coaches stage events ranging from a BasketBall gala to college and high school tournaments to raise funds — nearly $45 million so far — and to raise awareness among young people about the importance of cancer prevention, early detection and healthy lifestyle choices.

Norm says he appreciates efforts like these that reach out to young people with information about colorectal cancer.

“The great thing about youth is that they can talk about colorectal cancer, and they’re not as fearful,” says Norm. “It’s a contrast to my generation, where you had to be careful speaking about cancer because some people thought it might be contagious and considered it a stigma."

Reaching out for help

What words of advice does Norm have for people newly diagnosed with cancer?

“Realize that you have a powerful network going for you — including your family, your friends, your cancer care team and cancer-related organizations,” he says. “Use them. Reach out to them. If you want to talk to someone, don’t wait — make the call. You’ll be overwhelmed by the support they all provide.”

This Patient Resource Cancer Guide is another powerful tool to use, Norm says. “When I first saw it, I thought it was the best cancer book I had seen. You can find information that will help you ask the right questions and get information you can understand.”