Oct. 21, 2004
by JON NAITO
The News Tribune
"I never thought I'd be doing this," she said. "I didn't picture myself back here again."
These days, Julie Butler is glad to be most anywhere, but it's hard to beat being home again.
The former three-sport star at Bellarmine Prep is now the junior varsity coach for the girls soccer and basketball teams, sports she excelled at for the Lions in the late '90s.
Being a coach and substitute teacher at her alma mater is surprise enough for Butler, who went on to play collegiately at Santa Clara and was an all-conference forward in soccer.
The fact she's still around to pursue a new career path may be a bigger surprise.
Rewind one year to October 2003, midway through her first season back at Bellarmine, and formations and game plans weren't the only things she had on her mind.
There was also a final round of chemotherapy--a painful reminder of her battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
"Who thinks a healthy 22-year-old gets cancer?" Butler said. "It made me think about how fortunate everything in my life was--my family, my friends--and it taught me not to take one day for granted."
It all began 21 months ago, in January 2003, when Butler was nearing the end of a basketball career at Santa Clara.
She was a tough competitor, bringing a lunch-pail ethos to the court. She never complained, just showed up, punched in, and at game's end usually punched out a winner.
She was among the West Coast Conference leaders in rebounding and scoring when she began feeling under the weather.
Initially diagnosed with pneumonia, Butler continued to play--well enough, in fact, to be named to the all-conference team after the season.
But in March, when the symptoms wouldn't go away, she kept visiting the doctor.
She had cancer.
"I was shocked," said Kathy Tschimperle, Butler's mother. "Because here is my daughter, who's playing Division I basketball, and all of sudden she has cancer?"
Hodgkin's Lymphoma is the rarer form of the cancer that attacks the blood stream.
About eight percent of lymphoma patients are diagnosed with Hodgkin's, and the cancer generally afflicts younger patients between the ages of 16 and 34.
It is an aggressive disease that attacks the lymph nodes, key cogs in the immune system, the body's weapon against cancer and infectious diseases.
When Butler's illness was finally diagnosed, the cancer had spread to her spleen. She was in stage three. Stage four patients are considered the most dire cases.
Doctors gave her a 70 percent chance of survival.
Butler missed the Broncos' basketball season finale. She also missed the final quarter of her senior year, leaving her two classes short of graduation.
It was time to come back home.
She moved in with her mother and stepfather. Her sister, Kim Butler, a teammate at Santa Clara, transferred to Oregon State to be closer to Julie. Her father showed up to be with her for chemotherapy sessions.
The pieces of her new life began falling into place.
"It was the best possible decision for me," Butler said. "I had so much support from my family, from my friends and from the Bellarmine community. There was no better place I could have been."
Butler underwent six months of chemotherapy at St. Claire Hospital in Lakewood.
She demonstrated the same resilience that made her a Bellarmine legend.
As a sophomore sweeper for the Lions, she etched her name in school history, scoring the winning goal to beat Decatur for the state championship.
Funny how winners always find a way. During treatment at St. Claire, she did something else unusual: She never lost her hair during chemotherapy.
"I still shake my head at that," said Bluey Butler, Julie's father. "I did, because I shaved (my head) in support. The nurses told me that usually after three treatments the hair starts to go. She never did. That was amazing."
Julie's upbeat, sunny demeanor rubbed off on nurses and other patients. She played games and razzed the other patients. She made sure other patients didn't take out their frustrations on the nurses.
The nurses, in return, showered her parents with compliments about their daughter's relentlessly positive outlook.
"She never cried," Tschimperle said. "I never heard her complain once. It actually started to worry me."
A chance meeting of Bluey and Bellarmine soccer coach Joe Waters, a longtime friend, at a restaurant helped shape the next chapter of Butler's life.
"I ran into her dad, and I asked about Julie," said Waters, who coached against Julie Butler while coaching at Gig Harbor. "I told him we needed a coach, and he said Julie was looking for something to do. I asked if Julie would be interested. He told me, `You can ask her yourself, she'll be here in a minute.' It was pretty funny how that all came about."
Though she had never coached, never given it a thought, Butler accepted.
She quickly gravitated to the girls, and the girls to her. She caught the coaching bug and couldn't sit still for basketball season.
Slowly, Butler got her energy back. She completed work toward her sociology degree at UW-Tacoma and began playing basketball again.
Last October, she started training for a triathlon that raised money for leukemia and lymphoma research.
But in June, there was another scare.
A regular screening turned up a swollen thyroid. Surgery followed, and doctors said the growth was benign.
"Fortunately, it was nothing serious," Butler said. "That was a scare."
She is, however, serious about coaching.
The young woman who once wanted to be a social worker has had a change of heart. She is now pondering getting her teaching certification, and she has thrown herself into coaching. The Bellarmine junior varsity team is a sterling 10-0-1 this season.
As a substitute teacher, she found the classroom an extension of coaching - teaching, after all, is teaching, whether on a grass field or behind a desk.
"I'll be 24 next week," Butler said. "And I've decided, yes, this is definitely what I want to be doing. I never knew this is what I wanted to be doing. But I think the last year or so have been sort of a blessing ... I just hope I never have to go through it again."