When Cleveland State assistant women’s basketball coach Heather Brown was a student at Cleveland State, she had a very different experience than most 18-year-olds starting college.
The McMinn County native was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma just a month into her freshman year. Her plans to attend college and play basketball had to be put on hold — she started what was to be two long years of chemo therapy, losing her hair twice throughout the process.
Brown initially went to the doctor because of chronic lower back pain. The cancer turned out to be in her L-5 vertebrae.
“I didn’t necessarily worry that I was going to die, but a lot of the people around me did,” stated Brown.
“I knew that this particular type of cancer had a high cure rate, but there is just something about the word ‘cancer’…and the less you know, the worse it sounds. My mom is a nurse, so she understood what was going on, but my dad thought the worst because he didn’t have the same medical knowledge she had.”
Brown’s cancer diagnosis affected the whole family in different ways. Nobody on either side of her family had ever had cancer, so this was a new experience for the Brown family.
Heather had to give up her apartment in Cleveland and move back home with her parents.
Her older sister Sarah was away in college at the time, but younger sister Hannah was still at home.
“I know Sarah worried about me, but she never showed that side to me. I know she talked to Mom about it, but she just never wanted me to see that she was worried. The hardest part for Hannah was not being able to have slumber parties and sleepovers with her friends at our house anymore. I never slept well during chemo, so anytime I could get some sleep; it was a big deal, so she wasn’t able to have her friends over because of the noise.”
Brown was treated at T.C. Thompson’s Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga, because she was only 18 at the time of her diagnosis.
“That was fine by me to be treated there. I didn’t mind the special treatment at all,” stated Brown. “Because I was so young and naïve, I felt invincible. I had a strong body and a very strong support system standing by me, which was good.”
Brown said she and head coach Dan Lumpkin stayed in touch during her time away from CSCC.
“I lived in the basement and kept all the lights out because all I wanted to do was try to sleep and I remember looking up and seeing him sitting beside me. He had found a chair and sat it by my bed and stayed and talked to me for a while.
“He also organized a blood drive at Cleveland State in honor of me through Blood Assurance. He is a good man.”
In addition to visiting her at her home, Lumpkin also met her at a few McMinn County High School basketball games where her sister, Hannah, was playing at the time.
Brown always loved the game of basketball and tried to attend as many games as she could when she had the energy. It was at one of these meetings that Lumpkin presented her with a picture of the entire CSCC women’s hoops team holding up Brown’s jersey along with her number, 4. Her entire team had signed the photo.
“Coach never said I couldn’t come back, so I just assumed I could,” stated Brown.
And that is exactly what she did. During her second year of chemo in 2006, she re-enrolled at CSCC. She was not yet released from her doctor to be able to play basketball, but she sat on the bench, did the stats and even traveled some.
It was the next year, 2007, that she was able to get back on the court because she found out she was in remission.
“I couldn’t play at all like I used to play, because I lost every bit of muscle mass I had. My body was still recovering. I used to be this strong, athletic, lean person, but I lost it all from just sitting around.”
Brown said she never doubted the fact she would get back on the court, but during that season she stayed mad and irritated with herself because she could not play the way she was accustomed to.
“My mind was the same, but my body wasn’t, but in the end, I was just glad to get to play.”
After graduating from CSCC, Brown transferred to Lee University where she graduated in December 2011 with a degree in health education and a minor in physical education.
During that time, she was never really away from basketball, serving as a volunteer assistant coach for Cleveland State for 3 ½ years before being hired as a paid assistant coach last May.
“I never liked missing practice. Not as a player or a coach. When I was a volunteer, I had another job, but if we had practice five days a week, I made it to four of those.”
“It has been great having Heather as an assistant,” stated Lumpkin. “She has paid her dues over the past 3 ½ years working with us as a volunteer assistant, while also working a full-time job, so when the opportunity came I was happy to offer her the position. Heather was a smart, strong-willed and determined person and basketball player coming out of high school, and I believe those characteristics were key in her fight against cancer.
“She was diagnosed very early in her freshman year here at Cleveland State, and that was a tough time for her. Getting through that struggle and coming out on top has given her a great perspective on life and how to deal with adversity.”
During her time as an assistant volunteer, she was able to coach her sister, Hannah, who also chose to come to CSCC and play basketball. Brown said even though the two didn’t always see eye to eye on the court, looking back, there were two positive things that came out of coaching her sister — she was able to see her every day, and she got a front row seat to every one of her games.
Coaching has given Brown a newfound appreciation for Lumpkin, as well. “As a player, we bumped heads a lot. I am very strong-willed and hard-headed. Now, we are almost always on the same page. I can really see where he is coming from with his decisions. Even though I was 21 at the time I played, and older than all of the other players, I was still immature. But, I felt more mature than the other players because I had been through so much more than those girls.”
Brown’s dream is to teach and be a head basketball coach one day. “I feel very blessed to be around the sport I love so dearly on a daily basis. I have really enjoyed being here at Cleveland State — as a player, student, volunteer and now paid assistant coach.”
“Heather knows the game of basketball and enjoys teaching it and helping these young ladies develop and mature as players and people,” stated Lumpkin.
“She has been a great asset to us, and we hope she will continue her positive impact on our program for years to come.”
Heather is the daughter of Dennie and Geri Brown of Athens. She is the sister of Sarah, 29, and Hannah, 20.
When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, and especially her two nephews, Caden, 5, and Colby, 4.