SUNY Potsdam golfer Shippee aces fight against cancer
As a member of the SUNY Potsdam golf team, it’s a certainty that junior Lee Shippee competed against strong winds, heavy rains and other elements of nature at some point during the 2010 fall season.
However, that’s nothing compared to what Shippee, the team’s No. 3 golfer and a native of Corinth, N.Y., battled for almost half a year starting in late 2009.
After nearly six months of surgeries, chemotherapy, checkups and combating infections, Shippee was put into remission in mid-April, winning his fight against testicular cancer two weeks following his final surgery. He was able to return to the golf course in September, finishing in a tie for fifth to help Potsdam win the season-opening Bears Fall Invite on Sept. 7.
He competed at tournaments and was healthy throughout the season, helping the team to three other top 10 finishes, including sixth place at the ECAC Division III Metro-Upstate Golf Championships.
“Lee is a great kid and a great student who is well-liked among his peers,” Potsdam coach Rick Berkman said. “I think he was motivated to get back in school and be involved in golf because it is so important to him.”
Shippee’s battle against the disease began in November 2009, when he noticed a lump and went immediately to Student Health Services on campus. Nurse practitioner Mary Beth Rosenfeld referred Shippee to Dr. Lars Thompson, an area urologist, who told Shippee he had a tumor that would need to be removed in surgery.
Shippee said his parents were in Potsdam within four hours after he notified them of the problem. They stayed with friends of Shippee’s grandparents in Potsdam.
“It was very scary, but my family was there for me,” Shippee said. “There wasn’t a day that I didn’t think I was going to get through it. That didn’t even run through my mind at all. So I just fought and took it day by day, which is what you’ve got to do I guess.”
After surgery, Shippee finished out the semester and, upon going home to Corinth, had a follow-up appointment with Dr. David Shaffer, an oncologist at Albany Medical Center. He and his family received more bad news when Shaffer informed them that Shippee would need four cycles of chemotherapy and a procedure called a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) to remove abdominal lymph nodes.
For Shippee, chemotherapy proved to be the worst part of the cancer experience. Because he also suffers from cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease that causes sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive tract, Shippee obtained a lung infection during the third cycle and had to be put on heavy doses of steroids.
“It’s just something I wouldn’t want anyone to ever have to go through,” Shippee said. “I barely slept every night, I was up puking and I had hot and cold sweats. It’s just a chemical in your body that shouldn’t be there, and it just makes you feel like garbage.”
Shippee had his final surgery on March 31 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He spent two and a half weeks in the city, including one week prior to surgery when he couldn’t eat anything to cleanse his body.
Throughout treatment, Shippee had loads of support. His mother, Lori Rich, spent every session of chemotherapy with him and took a month off to be with Shippee during his second surgery in New York City.
“Lee impressed me,” Rich said. “He just kept a positive attitude that the cancer is what it is, and we’re going to do what we need to do to cure it. He had rough days where he got down, but overall he had a positive attitude and was amazing during surgery.”
Shippee’s brother Chad, a 2010 SUNY Potsdam graduate and former men’s golfer, as well as his stepfather, Skip Rich, also stood by. His girlfriend, Victoria DeMatteo, a senior at Corinth High School, also spent numerous hours at his side.
In addition, teammates Benton Sullivan and Kenny Rhodes offered their thoughts and support throughout the ordeal. Shippee said Rhodes, his roommate at the time, was “floored” by the news and would send Shippee text messages. Sullivan, a junior from Massena, N.Y., contacted Shippee at least once a week over text message or Facebook.
“I think he was happy to talk to someone back at Potsdam,” Sullivan said. “It was tough with him in New York City, but it drew us closer as a team. He was always upbeat and never negative.”
Shippee’s hometown of Corinth played a key role in his recovery. The Corinth High School boys’ basketball program sold wristbands to raise funds for Shippee’s family. The bands were colored lavender, the color for testicular cancer, and labeled “LELAND,” Shippee’s given first name.
“The expenses built up, so the funds immensely helped,” Shippee said. “The whole community came together. They had a Coaches vs. Cancer game and made a donation to the American Cancer Society in my name.”
Shippee also noted the importance of being a part of the SUNY Potsdam community. He was able to keep up his spirits and stay motivated knowing he could return to his friends and teammates.
His mother stressed the importance of athletics in helping Shippee stay in good physical shape to battle both cancer and cystic fibrosis. She said he lost 15-20 pounds through the process, so regaining his strength would be crucial.
“Exercise and athletics are key in keeping healthy,” Rich said. “We encouraged him to take walks and eventually get back on the golf course. (Being a part of the team) gave him strength and something to work toward.”
Shippee, who is on track to graduate in May 2012 with a degree in business administration, said his battle with cancer has made him a better man on and off the golf course.
“It’s made me a lot stronger and it’s made me not take anything for granted at all,” Shippee said. “I worked every day to be the best I can be and be better at golf.
“It’s also given me an appreciation for family, and it’s made me want to work harder at everything I do, to go out and study more than I used to. I want to make the best out of everything I do now.”