Feb. 15, 2013
By Whitney Dixon, U-M Public & Media RelationsAs the winter semester began at the University of Michigan in January of 2010, women's track and field head coach James Henry was preparing for his 26th season, just as he had in each of his previous 25 years. That season turned out to be one to remember for Henry, not because of the team's performance on the track, but as a result of a traumatic, life-changing experience.
In late February, Henry arrived at his doctor's office for a routine checkup, only to receive some alarming news -- his Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) count was elevated. After several followup tests, Henry was delivered the news that he had prostate cancer.
"It was a huge shock because I had never been seriously sick," Henry said. "I don't drink, I don't smoke, and then all of a sudden I got prostate cancer, so it can happen to anyone."
With no concrete prognosis or treatment plan in place, Henry was not ready to tell his wife, Michelle, the bad news. So, Henry confided in senior associate athletic director Bitsy Ritt, whom he had worked closely with throughout his tenure. Simultaneously, just down the hall that same morning, Michigan's newly appointed director of athletics, Dave Brandon, was starting his first day on the job.
Shocked and saddened by the news she had just received, Ritt knew exactly knew what to do. She immediately sent Henry to talk to Brandon, an eight-year prostate cancer survivor.
"I didn't want to do that on his first day, but that's the best thing that could have happened to me because he was so generous and so down to earth," Henry said.
Despite being new to his role with Michigan Athletics, Brandon knew precisely how to handle the situation. Eight years prior when he received his diagnosis, Brandon flew around the world to find the best doctors and the best treatment he could, only to find out the answer was right in his back yard at the University of Michigan Hospital.
"He got in touch with his doctors, who in turn got in touch with my doctors, and I had my surgery within a week," Henry said. "I am very grateful to Dave Brandon."
Henry underwent surgery to remove the cancer, and besides a three-week recovery period following the surgery, Henry did not take time off from his duties as Michigan's head coach. He did, however, share the news with his student-athletes, who were preparing for the start of outdoor track and field season.
"I remember telling the team that there was good news and bad news, but that I was going to be okay," he said. "I'm not a very sentimental guy and I made it very clear that I didn't want them to cry or make cards or anything. The girls took it very well and were very supportive."
One person that kept things light and down to earth for Henry throughout his journey was volunteer assistant coach Arnett Chisholm, who has been Henry's best friend since they were teammates at Michigan, starting in 1977. He was there every step of the way and even sent humorous care packages to Henry's house after the surgery to cheer him up.
"We've been through some type of everything together. I joke that I spend more time with him than with my wife because he and I have been together since 1976 when he was my host on my recruiting visit here at Michigan," Henry said. "We've been in each other's weddings and we've been the best of buddies for a long time."
With his life-changing surgery in the rearview mirror, and the continued support of his family, friends, student-athletes and colleagues all around him, Henry breathed a sigh of relief. He had beaten that word that everyone dreads -- cancer.
"My wife was there for me and I tried to continue working the best I could before and after my surgery," he said. "I missed a couple meets during my recovery and then I got back on the saddle and life moved on."
But life for Henry did not go back to the way it was before his battle with cancer. He fully understood how fragile life can be and developed a greater appreciation for life after his battle.
"I didn't like showing my emotions and doing those things that most men don't do and that completely changed. When I found out I was going to beat cancer, I said 'I am going to show my emotions and I'm going to be good to my wife.'"
About a year later, just when things seemed to be looking up, and a fresh track season had begun, another devastating blow was thrown his way -- but this time it was a complete role reversal. His best friend and colleague, Chisholm, collapsed at a track meet and nearly died in front of Henry's eyes. After his recovery, Chisholm was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes.
The two traumatic events brought Henry and Chisholm even closer, and after Chisholm had his diabetes completely under control, the two made a pact to live life to the fullest.
"Our two experiences caused us to loosen up," according to Henry.
The pair started exercising regularly at the indoor track building and quickly got a group of other friends and university colleagues to join in. After telling their stories to the group after a workout, a friend suggested they start attending the ballroom dance class that he went to. Without hesitation, Henry laughed and declined, but with some persuasion he decided to check it out.
"When I told my wife I wanted to dance, she was shocked and couldn't believe it. The first time I went, I watched for a while and I fell in love -- I said 'I can do this,'" Henry said. "It was great because there were other people with no rhythm and people weren't laughing at them or belittling them. So it was then that we decided to take our wives to the class and out dancing once a week."
With a little practice, Henry continued to get the hang of dancing and now has no trouble leading his wife around the dance floor. He is now an instructor and will be teaching a class in a couple weeks.
"My wife always loved to dance and now I like to dance more than her. These are all things I should have been doing from day one, but it took me going through this journey with cancer to say, 'James, loosen up, enjoy your life and have fun with it.'"
With the three-year anniversary of his surgery approaching, Henry is living a full, healthy life and taking advantage of every moment as a coach, husband, grandfather, father and friend. He has also joined the fight against cancer, donating his time and money to cancer research at the U-M Hospital.
Wanting to get more involved, Henry has jump-started the organization of a pink and blue cancer awareness event in conjunction with the annual Michigan Silverston Invitational on Saturday, Feb. 16. The men's and women's track and field teams will be wearing blue and pink T-shirts to help create awareness for prostate and breast cancer. Representatives from the American Cancer Society will be on site to collect donations and help create awareness by telling their own individual stories.
"I'm really pleased and proud that we're hosting this event this weekend. I've been hesitant to do something like this because I don't like drawing attention to myself, but this was something I felt passionate about," he said. "It's about more than me; it's about a great cause and helping to create awareness for both men and women."
Henry hopes to continue spreading awareness, using his platform as a collegiate track and field coach as a catalyst.
"This is a silent killer and has nothing to do with your lifestyle or race, and I want more people to be aware of that and not be afraid to get checked."
He feels that it's not only important to create awareness about prostate cancer and breast cancer, but to help spread the word living a healthier, more active lifestyle.
"I would love to get others in the athletic department or in the community involved in ballroom dancing," Henry said. "It's just one form of exercising, having fun, and meeting new people."
Through his own battle with cancer, Henry has also become more sensitive and sympathetic toward the challenges that people face in their everyday lives and hopes that others follow suit.
"I'm more sensitive and more aware of all types of challenges that people go through and differences that people have," he said. "I want to be more vocal, and if people hear the message then I feel I can make a difference."
Whether it is on the track or in life, Henry has dedicated his life to living well and helping others.
"We have two hands for a reason. With one hand we reach up for help and with the other we reach down to help someone else," Henry said. "We need to live life to the fullest and help somebody along the way. Everybody can help somebody and make a positive difference!"