‘It was an escape’: Cape Breton hockey coach used time at the rink to help get through cancer battle

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SYDNEY, NS – From playing to coaching, the sport of hockey has been a huge part of Jesse MacLean’s life, but there came a time when the game was even more important to him.

MacLean, the head coach of the Port Hawkesbury-based Cabot Highlanders of the Nova Scotia Under-16 ‘AAA’ Hockey League, had arrived home from a road trip and decided to get a shower to freshen up after a busy weekend at the rink.

While in the shower, the now 27-year-old MacLean felt an unusual lump on his testicle. Concerned with the situation, he immediately acted and booked an appointment with his doctor.

“Right off the bat I knew it didn’t feel right,” said MacLean. “I’d love to sit here right now and act like I’ve always been someone who regularly checked myself, I wasn’t, but I knew something wasn’t normal.”

From there, MacLean’s life would change. Shortly after the original appointment, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, a disease that typically occurs in men between the ages of 15 and 45.

At the time last January, doctors believed MacLean’s cancer was stage 1 seminoma. Within a month of the diagnosis, he was in the operating room where physicians removed the tumor.

“Everything happened pretty quickly,” said MacLean. “I give a lot of credit to my family doctor and the urologist because if it wasn’t for them acting so fast, who knows what would have ended up happening.”

Around his surgery date, MacLean took some time away from his coaching duties with the team but not as much as one would think. Because of the pandemic and sports being paused, he never missed a game behind the bench and only remained away from the club for about a week.

“The week after my surgery I was back at the rink,” said MacLean. “I wasn’t allowed on the ice so I was doing it old school from the bench with the board and pointing. I was happy to be back but it wasn’t how I liked to run practice, so I really wanted to get back on the ice with the team.”

Cabot Highlanders head coach Jesse MacLean was diagnosed with testicular cancer last January and used hockey as a way to get through his battle with the disease.  The 27-year-old is now cancer-free and still coaching the Port Hawkesbury-based team.  JEREMY FRASER/CAPE BRETON POST - Jeremy Fraser
Cabot Highlanders head coach Jesse MacLean was diagnosed with testicular cancer last January and used hockey as a way to get through his battle with the disease. The 27-year-old is now cancer-free and still coaching the Port Hawkesbury-based team. JEREMY FRASER/CAPE BRETON POST – Jeremy Fraser

HOCKEY THERAPY

Three weeks from the day of his surgery, MacLean was back on the ice skating and running team practices again, a move that shocked many people in the hockey community, including the team’s parents and players.

“I said if I was cleared by my doctor and I was feeling well enough I was going to do it, it’s just the way I live my life,” said MacLean. “The commitment to the program bent me, but it didn’t break me, and I wanted to get back as soon as I could and I did.”

MacLean, originally of Whycocomagh and now residing in Westmount, returned to the bench for the final push to the playoffs in February and March. He focused his attention on helping the players develop and be successful both on and off the ice.

The Highlanders would finish the regular season in sixth place in the 10-team standings with a 13-19-0-0 record and would meet the Admirals of St. Margarets Bay – now known as the Martello Buccaneers – in the playoffs.

Cabot would lose the first game of the best-of-three series in Port Hawkesbury with the series shifting to St. Margarets Bay with the club’s season on the line.

While MacLean tried to focus on the task at hand – helping to keep the team’s season alive – it wasn’t the only thing on his mind that week.

Cabot Highlanders head coach Jesse MacLean stands at the Membertou Sport and Wellness Center overlooking a team practice.  MacLean was diagnosed with testicular cancer last January but continued to coach hockey throughout his journey and is now cancer-free.  JEREMY FRASER/CAPE BRETON POST - Jeremy Fraser
Cabot Highlanders head coach Jesse MacLean stands at the Membertou Sport and Wellness Center overlooking a team practice. MacLean was diagnosed with testicular cancer last January but continued to coach hockey throughout his journey and is now cancer-free. JEREMY FRASER/CAPE BRETON POST – Jeremy Fraser

MORE DIFFICULT NEWS

Following the removal of the tumor, doctors learned MacLean’s diagnosis was not stage 1 seminoma but rather stage 2B non-seminoma, which is a more common type of testicular cancer that tends to grow more quickly than seminomas.

At the time, doctors didn’t believe the cancer had spread, but to be on the safe side, a scan was ordered to be completely sure. Unfortunately, it showed that not all of the cancer had been removed and had spread to a lymph node in MacLean’s abdomen.

Because of the discovery, doctors felt chemotherapy would be the best option for MacLean. He followed their guidance and treatment was scheduled to begin in mid-April.

Despite the news, MacLean continued to do what he loved doing – coaching the players. He downplayed the situation and told the club he was having chemo for precautionary reasons – but that wasn’t the case.

“Not only was it a stressful time for hockey, but having that thrown at me at the same time was really tough,” said MacLean. “In that moment, you’re scared, worried and stressed but at the same time, I was in a situation where I wasn’t going to leave the kids at the time where they were.”

With the season on the line, MacLean and the Highlanders would pick up two wins on the road to upset the Admirals and advance to the provincial championship tournament.

“It was a good way to get my mind off things,” said MacLean. “I coached playoffs and provincials knowing I had some difficult weeks ahead of me, but at the moment, I was more worried about the kids and wanting the best for them.”

Unfortunately for the Highlanders, the team would go winless at the provincials, losing all four games and were eventually eliminated from championship contention.

“Once hockey finished, once that final game happened in Halifax and I knew hockey was over for the year, I knew what was coming next and it was an emotional couple of days,” said MacLean.

“Every year end always is but when I knew what I was coming up, it made it a little bit tougher but I battled through it.”

While people were aware of his upcoming chemotherapy, only close family and friends knew he still had cancer. MacLean admits he didn’t tell many people for privacy reasons.

“If I came out with that right off the bat everyone would have assumed the worst,” said MacLean, noting at that time he hadn’t lost any of his hair, which made it easier for him to hide the fact he wasn’t feeling the best.

“To hear that it got into my lymph node was scary, but it actually wasn’t as bad as you think it was. I didn’t want people to worry more than they had to because I knew I was going to be OK.”

Cabot Highlanders.  - Contributed
Cabot Highlanders. – Contributed

A POSITIVE MINDSET

The next week after the season was over, MacLean began the first of three rounds of chemotherapy. While one would think he would have taken some time away from the rink, he didn’t let the treatment get in his way.

A week after his first treatment, MacLean was back on the ice running the Highlanders’ spring identification camp for players interested in playing for the team for the 2022-23 season.

“Hockey was an escape for me and that’s what I used it as,” said MacLean, noting that he received approval from doctors before going on the ice.

“It was an escape to get away even if it was only for two hours, it was two hours that I wasn’t thinking about it – it was good to get away a bit.”

While some didn’t think it was the best idea for him to be on the ice but rather to be relaxing and taking it easy, MacLean said it’s not what he wanted to do.

“During chemo, the days you don’t feel great, you don’t do anything. But the days you feel good, you have to take advantage of them,” said MacLean.

“The good days you take advantage of them because they won’t be every day. The way I looked at it, a good day was an opportunity to make myself stronger and healthier for those weak days and those bad days.”

MacLean finished his treatment in mid-June and later learned that the lymph node had returned to its normal size, making his chemotherapy a success and he was cancer-free.

Canadian Cancer Society Logo
Canadian Cancer Society Logo

TESTICULAR CANCER

Testicular cancer starts in the cells of the testicle. A cancerous tumor is a group of cancer cells that can grow into nearby tissue and destroy it. The tumor can also spread to other parts of the body.

Testicular cancer can happen at any age, but it’s most common in teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 and 45.

Most often, testicular cancer starts in germ cells, which make sperm. These types of tumors are called germ cell tumors. The two main types of germ cell tumors that develop in the testicles are seminomas and non-seminomas.

In 2022, an estimated 1,200 Canadian men were expected to be diagnosed with testicular cancer. An estimated 35 of those were expected to die from the disease. Official statistics for the year were not available from the Canadian Cancer Society.

Testicular cancer is among the most treatable when caught early and one of the most curable cancers. If testicular cancer is caught early enough, men have a 97 percent chance of survival.

The three basic types of treatment for testicular cancer are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Hockey stick and puck.  - Contributed
Hockey stick and puck. – Contributed

FEELING GREAT

Today, MacLean remains the head coach of the Highlanders and travels back and forth from Westmount and Port Hawkesbury on a regular basis for practice and games.

“I used the summer to recover and prepare for the season, but one of the biggest things this has taught me is that I have a whole new perspective on life,” said MacLean.

“I’m not going to say I don’t still have moments where I get upset or stressed, but I just have a whole new outlook on life. I have a whole new appreciation for life – I’m happy, I’m in a good relationship with my girlfriend, I’m doing what I love and I’m living day-by-day – I feel great.”

Since the summer, MacLean has had two follow-up exams and both have shown no active cancer. He has another scan scheduled for next month and will now have regular scans every three months.

Local fans will have an opportunity to see MacLean and the Highlanders in action next month in Membertou. The team will play the Cape Breton Jets on Feb. 2 at 7 pm and Feb. 26 at 10 am at the Membertou Sport and Wellness Centre.

MacLean has advice for readers.

“The best person who knows your body is you, that’s both male and female,” said MacLean. “Because of that, it’s important that you check your body from time to time and if you do find something unusual don’t wait on it, get it checked.”


– Jeremy Fraser is the sports reporter for the Cape Breton Post. Follow him on Twitter @CBPost_Jeremy.


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