Mike Gilmartin earned his athletic training certification in 1983.

Mike Gilmartin earned his athletic training certification in 1983.

June 19, 2012

“I don’t want cancer or being a survivor to define me, but it is something that has happened to me.”

There were 205 days from November 20, 2010, when Assistant Athletic Director Mike Gilmartin received the sobering news he had cancer until June 13, 2011. That was the day he returned to his post as the head athletic trainer at UIC, a position he has held for 15 years.

At 54 years of age, 205 days is merely a blink of an eye. But when many of those are spent not counting down the days, but the hours until seven of the most testing weeks come to a close, all of the sudden those 205 days become much more defining.

It was during the summer of 2010 that Gilmartin noticed a lump about half the size of an egg on his throat.

“I had just been sick, so I thought a lymph node had just blown up,” Gilmartin said. “I didn’t do anything about it for a couple of months because I was never feeling bad. I wasn’t tired, I didn’t have a loss of appetite and I was running really well.”

Mike Gilmartin pictured with Curtis Granderson.

When the lump remained after several months, UIC team physician Dr. Mark Hutchinson urged Gilmartin to have it examined. He went in for a biopsy before traveling with the men’s basketball team to a tournament in Toledo, Ohio.

While in Toledo, Gilmartin was in the team locker room attending to his usual duties as he prepared the team to face College of Charleston, when suddenly a day that seemed routine couldn’t have been further from usual.

“We were in the locker room before the game, and I checked my phone before we went back on the floor,” Gilmartin recalled. “I had a message from my doctor asking me to call him as soon as I could. Right then, I knew it wasn’t good when he was calling me on a Saturday, and asking me to call him at home. I knew something was wrong, and to be honest, when that lump wasn’t going away, I always knew there was something wrong.”

Upon returning to the hotel after the game, Gilmartin called his doctor.

“Doc, it's Mike, tell me the bad news.”

The doctor explained to Gilmartin that he had cancer. The doctors were unsure where the cancer was coming from, but with a CT Scan scheduled for the following Monday, they were hoping to identify an exact location.

“The trip home, and the days following were five of the longest days of my life,” Gilmartin said. “I didn’t know if I had six months to live, or how much longer. I was going over anything I would have left to do. Anything I would need to prepare for my daughter.”

The medical staff continued to perform biopsies until it found the cancer. It was on Gilmartin’s right tonsil. It seemed like an easy fix, cut the tonsil out. But the doctors explained to Gilmartin that removing a tonsil on someone his age is considered a “morbid surgery” as it would take at least six weeks to heal. They were going to do radiation and chemotherapy treatment anyway, so they were hoping to remove the cancer from the treatment. Gilmartin knew the prognosis was good – 99.9% of the time it ends up alright – but he also knew the treatment was going to be awful.

Once Gilmartin understood the course of action he was going to endure over the next seven weeks he approached UIC Director of Athletics Jim Schmidt, Associate Athletic Director Tonya McGowan and Special Assistant Denny Wills.

“I would do anything for Jim, Tonya and Denny for how well they treated me,” Gilmartin noted. “The first thing Jim said was, ‘Look, you go do what you have to do. Don’t worry about anything here. We will be here when you are ready to come back, but I don’t want you to worry about a thing.’”

“In the 16 years I have worked in athletics, Mike is one of the finest individuals I have ever worked with and I’ve been doing this for 37 years now,” Wills said. “Mike didn’t even want to take time off for chemotherapy. He would call me from home and have me check on things. It seemed like he was gone from work maybe two days, and once he was back, he didn’t miss a beat.”

Initially, Gilmartin anticipated being in the office every day during the first month of treatment, but after his first week he was having difficulty functioning. And, with the treatment being performed to his throat, he was using a feeding tube that he needed to be hooked up to 18 hours out of the day.

Gilmartin entered his first day of seven weeks of treatment on January 17, 2011. He would receive radiation Monday through Friday, including three rounds of chemotherapy.

Mike Gilmartin seen taping Michael Jordan's ankle in 1988.

“Alright, let’s fight this thing,” Gilmartin remembered saying to himself.

It was about a week later when he followed up with his oncologist.

“When she asked me how I was doing, I said ‘awful.’ This is really kicking my butt, and I am disappointed because I thought I was a lot tougher than this,” Gilmartin said. “I thought I was ready to fight, but I can’t even wake up and get around.”

The oncologist informed Gilmartin that out of all of the patients she sees, the head and neck patients have it the worst because of the location. She bluntly told Gilmartin that it wasn’t going to be an easy seven weeks, and in fact, it’s really going to suck. But, you will be okay and we will beat this.

“At that point in the treatment, I already had a feeding tube put in because the radiation to the neck was going to be so scarred that I wouldn’t be able to swallow or eat,” Gilmartin said. “It didn’t take long before I had lost my sense of taste and everything tasted like a napkin. Eating was very unappealing, so I just went ahead with the feeding tube.”

As the days passed they became more trying not only physically – Gilmartin had lost 40 pounds at that point – but also mentally.

“I thought I was tough, but it doesn’t matter how tough you are. It just doesn’t. At some point, you’re going to feel like you don’t want to be around, and that’s how I felt for a little while. I was feeling depressed, so I started taking anti-depressants, and they seemed to help.

“When I was really struggling, I would take a piece of advice I received from a former co-worker from Northwestern, Lisa, who had cancer previously. She said to just think about getting through today. Don’t worry about tomorrow until you get there. It got so bad for her that she was just trying to get to the next hour.”

Gilmartin proclaims that much of what got him through those testing weeks was the love and support of his family and friends. He would receive letters, cards, text messages, e-mails and phone messages from current and former student-athletes and co-workers from his time at Elmhurst, Northwestern and UIC.

“I received an e-mail from John Adams, the National Director of Officials in the NCAA. He had gone through the same thing years back, and he wanted to tell me I would be fine. It’s funny how I could talk to people who had went through what I was going through, and they could tell me what was going to happen next, and darn it if it didn’t.”

Pat Donovan, Associate Athletic Trainer at UIC, worked with student-athletes and staff to put together a video for Gilmartin to let him know how much the UIC community was missing him and thinking about him every day.

Gilmartin's bib and medal from the Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon.

“There was one point when he wasn’t able to talk very much because of the radiation,” Donovan said. “We shot some video clips of various staff members and student-athletes to make him a DVD with everyone wishing him well. Mike is someone who is there for other people. So many student-athletes talk to him about issues, and a lot of people really missed him while he was gone.”

All of the various nods of encouragement must have lifted Gilmartin’s spirits because he was still able to find humor despite being at a point where he could no longer speak. He was relying on a marker board for much of his communication.

“During one trip to Hinsdale Hospital, my friend Noreen drove me to treatment. When I walked by some of the nurses they were wondering about who Noreen was because they had only seen my wife bring me in. I wrote on the board ‘This is my girlfriend, please don’t tell my wife.’ They were hysterical and a couple of them even believed me. Then, the next week, I had another friend bring me in. I already had the board ready with it saying ‘This is my girlfriend. Please don’t tell my other girlfriend or my wife.’”

Gilmartin says he will never be “normal” again. His taste buds returned to nearly full strength in March of 2012, but due to his treatments, he has a much lower salivation level, and as a runner, he needs to hydrate much more frequently. He also has a slight loss of hearing and some numbness in his toes and fingers, but he doesn’t consider any of these things major – or even minor issues.

Mike with daughter Annie after the Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon.

Gilmartin returned to work in the training room June 13, 2011, and by August he was able to complete a full week’s work, in addition to a half marathon – The Rock ‘n Roll Half, where he raised money for officer who have fallen in the line of duty.

Prior to the race, Gilmartin’s daughter, Annie, who previously had only competed in a hand full of area 5Ks, offered to run the half marathon with her father as a way to help him get through the race.

Standing at the start line on August 14, 2011, Gilmartin recalls Annie saying that she knew he was in good enough shape to run the whole thing, so he should just go ahead.

“Absolutely not,” Gilmartin said. “You were going to do this for me, and we are sticking together. I will run when you want to run, and I will walk when you want to walk. We are going to get through this together, and it was a great feeling to cross the finish line holding hands.”

Following that race, Gilmartin returned to Hinsdale to present an award-winning nurse, Chris, with the medal he had received from completing the half marathon.

“I went to an appointment, and called Chris out into the lobby. I told her how much she meant to me, and I placed the medal around her neck. She was crying, and telling me I earned it, but I said I never would have been there if it weren’t for you.”

“I so badly want to give back to other people who are going through cancer. I will never be able to repay all of the people who have helped me.”

Gilmartin may be right, that being a victim of, or survivor of cancer doesn’t define him, but perhaps what does is his nearly 30 years of tireless work in the athletic training field, the time he spends raising awareness about cancer, the fundraising he does for officers killed in the line of duty and the lending ear he provides for anyone in need.

That’s defining.