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Allison Kwolek is the head women's lacrosse coach at Clemson.

Now Cancer-Free, Allison Kwolek Hopes Her Story Inspires Others

October 3, 2023
Beth Ann Mayer
Clemson Athletics

Earlier this year, Allison Kwolek’s mind was squarely on lacrosse. In February, an 18-month journey that began with her hiring in August 2021 would come to fruition when Clemson took the field for the program’s first-ever game against Wofford.

What was not on her mind? The mammogram the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends women ages 40-75 receive every other year.

“When I turned 40 and started getting emails of mammograms, I thought, ‘I’m too young for this,” Kwolek said. “It hadn’t been in our family — none of my sisters, I have lots of aunts, my grandma [had breast cancer]. It was never anything in the forefront of my mind.”

A February 25 game against Notre Dame — Clemson’s first ACC contest — was. But Kwolek’s doctor set up a mammogram for her, so she went. Days before the Tigers played Notre Dame, Kwolek got a call from her doctor with news that knocked her off her feet: She had cancer.

“I was in complete shock,” Kwolek said. “I’m a healthy person. I have cancer?”

The shock quickly, and understandably, turned into tears.

“I cried most of the day,” Kwolek said. “We don’t know how far along it is. Am I going to be around in five years? Am I going to be around in 10 years? After that, it was, ‘You need to focus now on what is in front of you and not go beyond that.’”

Kwolek went to South Bend. The particulars don’t really matter, but the Tigers challenged the Irish despite grappling with adversity no one knew about just yet. They led 9-7 in the fourth quarter before Notre Dame scored the final five goals. Kwolek privately called Duke’s head coach Kerstin Kimel, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Kimel readily shared questions to ask and had a listening ear. Less than a month later, on March 11, Kwolek and Clemson hosted Duke. This time, the Tigers won 11-10 in what was considered an upset.

The two coaches shared a long embrace at the end. At the time, Kimel was one of only a few people who knew of Kwolek’s diagnosis outside of the Clemson lacrosse community. That changed three days later. On March 14, Clemson Athletics posted a letter Kwolek penned to the Clemson community. She didn’t bury the lede.

“More than 264,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States. As I found out recently, this year the number includes me,” the letter began

The support Kwolek received from Kimel quickly came from the greater lacrosse community, including ACC rivals. Pitt wrote cards. Syracuse sent one, too, and decorated the Tigers’ locker room when they paid the Dome a visit in April. J.L. Reppert, the Holy Cross men’s coach who lost his wife, Jill, to cancer, reached out.

“The support came in from so many people,” Kwolek said. “A lot of people reached out who I didn’t know who had a family member go through it, or they went through it themselves. They had the ability to understand what I was going through more deeply.”

It’s not lost on Kwolek that the lacrosse community was reaching out during their peak season. They had games to prepare for and win. Some of them were preparing to take on a Clemson team that was still an unknown with little film. It’s also not lost on her how challenging and emotional the diagnosis was for the student-athletes in their late teens and early 20s.

“That was a lot last year to be like, ‘First-year team, playing in the ACC. By the way, I have this diagnosis,’” Kwolek said. “But they were great. The staff was totally fine taking the lead if I had a doctor’s appointment and needed to step away.”

In the end, the support from around the country, from friends and on-field foes, served as a poignant reminder of the importance of perspective.

“Yes, clearly our job is to produce wins and get teams moving in that direction, but there’s a humanity aspect of it — we’re also people,” Kwolek said. “I went through cancer. Other people are going through other things in their lives. As much as we think our lives revolve around our sport and what we are doing, there are much bigger things that go on with us.”

The way the community rallied behind Kwolek was uplifting. So was the grueling schedule, perhaps surprisingly so. Kwolek says receiving the diagnosis in-season wound up being a silver lining in some respects.

“I’m thankful, on one end, that we are so busy,” Kwolek said. “My mind was so occupied with one thing after the next after the next, and you just keep moving through.”

Just as the doctors worked quickly to remove the cancer via surgery in the spring, Clemson continued to work quickly to establish itself in the ACC and beyond. But as the ACC tournament loomed at the end of April, so did another decision: Radiation or chemotherapy.

The decision to do radiation was predicated in part on news that to call “good” would be a massive understatement. The doctors didn’t believe the cancer had spread.

“It was in two lymph nodes, not all four, and it doesn’t look like it went past those two,” Kwolek said.

Clemson did its job on the field, too, beating Virginia Tech and Pitt to end the regular season to earn a bye into the quarterfinals of its first-ever ACC tournament. The Tigers’ debut season ended in a 16-6 loss to North Carolina that seems pretty arbitrary from the outside looking in.

But it wasn’t — for the team, but ultimately also for Kwolek’s mental and emotional health. The crash didn’t happen immediately. After a short period to heal from surgery, Kwolek went to 30 rounds of radiation from May through the end of July. First, the best news: Kwolek said her doctors say she can consider herself “cancer-free.”

But suddenly, after radiation — and leading a first-year program through the gauntlet ACC while navigating a life-altering gauntlet herself — Kwolek experienced quiet.

“That’s when everything started to hit me,” Kwolek said. “All of a sudden, I didn’t have anything. Didn’t have appointments. I didn’t have the team. I recognized the trauma of what I went through. I didn’t realize that it was traumatic. I was tired and not motivated to do anything. I was just so tired and questioning, ‘Am I OK right now?’ because all of this is done.”

Perhaps contributing to the fatigue, Kwolek’s doctors put her on Tamoxifen, a powerful drug to reduce the risk of the cancer reoccurring. Tiredness and mood swings are among potential side effects. But Kwolek rallied like a Tiger. As September 1 and the ability to reach out to high school junior recruits loomed and players and staff made their way back to campus for the start of fall ball, the family that lifted her in the early days of her diagnosis when no one else knew was back. And so was her optimistic spirit.

“Having the staff back and being around my staff and team brings me a lot of joy,” Kwolek said. “I told my team, ‘I’m good. I am still navigating some aspects of it, but now, I just want my focus to be on you guys.’”

It’s not coach speak. As the conversation shifts to the team, Kwolek’s eyes light up as she rattles off the names of her new additions, including eight freshmen. With cancer beaten, she’s particularly focused on offense and the midfield, and for good reason. Hanna Hilcoff (51 G, 12 A) is the only starting attacker back, with last year’s leaders in points and assists gone in Gianna New (50 G, 14 A) and Sofia Chepenik (33 G, 20 A). Emma Tilson’s return will help, as she corralled a team-high 108 draws.

But Kwolek is as optimistic as ever. The freshmen class brings speed in Jasmine Stanton and feistiness courtesy of Natalie Shurtleff. Kwolek says Kayla Macleod, the Georgia Player of the Year, “looks like she’s already been in college for a few years.” Blaire Byrne could rise on the depth chair in the midfield, while her twin sister, Regan, has looked stellar off-ball.

The Tigers will once again have their share of transfers, adding an element of experience to a fledgling program. Notably, Kwolek is excited about transfers in midfielder Shannon Brazier and attacker Katie Castiello, who played under associate head coach Bill Olin at Cornell and understands his offense. Redshirt sophomore Caitlin McElwee is also high on her list for a desire to have the ball with the game on the line, already evident in fall practices. Kwolek loves the way Boston College transfer Summer Agostino looks on fast breaks and can’t say enough about the dodging skills of America East Co-Attacker of the Year Claire Bockstie from UMBC.

“She is an incredible dodger, digs back in with her shoulder to get her lane to cage,” Kwolek said. “She’s making our defenders better every day.”

Speaking of defenders, Jordan DeBlasio (Syracuse) and Ariana Kline (UConn) are both expected to make immediate impacts, too. Kline, in particular, has shown to be a proven leader. Ultimately, everyone is learning from everyone — Kwolek from her players included.

“We’re in a neat spot with transfers,” Kwolek said. “It’s like, ‘You’re from BC? I want to talk to you about your fast break.”

But Kwolek wants her players — and everyone, really — to learn a thing or two from her outside of the lines. The first? Don’t brush off your health.

“If it hadn’t been for my doctor who was like, ‘I made the appointment for you,’ I wouldn’t have had it,” she said. “I almost canceled the [mammogram] appointment because it was in preseason. If I had waited another year or two, I would have been in a really bad spot because of how quickly it was progressing and how far along it was. The biggest thing is that it can happen to you. When the guidelines say you need to do something, you need to do it then and stay on top of your health.”

Kwolek knows it can be hard to find the words for a peer or loved one who has received a diagnosis. Before hers, she had heard news of others announcing they had cancer, too, and hesitated to reach out. She wants the people who put their hands on her back to know she’s thankful — and for everyone to know there’s no such thing as a perfect script for support.

“Just hearing, ‘I’m thinking of you’ from people — just a sentence meant a lot,” Kwolek said. “You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to say or saying the wrong thing. Just to feel support is a great feeling.”