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TRACK COACH TEACHES TEAM TO FIGHT
LANCASTER'S 'MR. C'
BATTLES CANCER

For an athlete who can pole vault more than 14 feet, Lancaster's Mary Saxer keeps pretty grounded.

For that she has her high school track coach, Kevin Carriero, to thank.

In addition to the rigors of a season, Saxer and her teammates had to watch their coach stage a daily battle with pancreatic cancer.

Saxer took her pole vaulting to new heights this past winter, breaking her own high school national record seven times. While she has learned the event from her club coach, the lessons she's learned from Carriero will affect the rest of her life.

"I think about all the accomplishments I've had, and then I think about what he's going through," Saxer said. "It definitely brings you back down to earth. When we thought about the possibility of Lancaster track without Mr. C., it didn't seem real. When he's not well, we're not well."

Carriero has always been open with his teams about his illness, but at the same time he didn't want to frighten them with concerns about his mortality. He fed off the success of the Redskins cross country and indoor track teams, and they seemed to draw strength from him.

At the Section VI Indoor Track Championships, junior Mike Kozlowski wrote Carriero's initials on the back of his calves in tribute. Kozlowski, who was a long shot in the long jump, won the sectional title in a personal-best 20 feet, 3 1/2 inches.

"Mr. C. gives us the inner drive to succeed," Kozlowski said. "I started varsity track in eighth grade and the first time I met him, he always made me push myself beyond what I thought was my limit. He made me believe in myself. He says no matter how weak you may start off your season, or how injured you are, you will get better, just keep your mind to it."

The fondness Carriero's athletes have for him is shared by many in the Western New York track community. Besides being the Redskins boys track coach since 1971 and the indoor track coach since 1978, he also served 14 years as the Section VI indoor track chairman.

Among the many things he's done to promote track locally, he made the Lancaster field house available to the Monsignor Martin Association as a site for league competition. He can appreciate a great race, and not just from his own athletes.

For Carriero, 57, this is his second bout with pancreatic cancer, a fight most people don't live to make. Regardless, Carriero will tell you that his story is not unique. That there are plenty of cancer survivors in Western New York.

The part he's leaving out is the survival rate from his form of cancer is less than 5 percent. And when he was originally diagnosed in July 1999, he was given three to six months to live. Exploratory surgery determined that his tumor, similar in scope to a dollar bill, had enveloped his pancreas and was deemed inoperable.

The diagnosis led Carriero, 49 at the time, to retire from teaching at Lancaster, but he never stopped believing he'd defeat his opponent.

"If I was going to go down, I was going down swinging," he said. "The attitude is not unlike the attitude of an athlete. It's an obstacle that you have to take every day. As much as this has been a challenge, if you read Lance Armstrong's book, he says he wouldn't wish (his cancer) on anybody, but he's a better person for having gone through it."

Symptoms of the slow-growing tumor didn't surface again until July 2004. Since then Carriero has had 38 radiation treatments and seven weeks of chemotherapy at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. He's had a blood transfusion, the fluid in his stomach tapped three times, five hospitalizations and has seen his weight fluctuate between 140 and 190 pounds.

The months of treatments all led to last month's much-anticipated CAT scan, which would reveal how his tumor had reacted, and what his prognosis was.

Joining Carriero in the examination room that day were his chemotherapy oncologist, Dr. Andrew Soh, and his radiation oncologist, Dr. Kyu Shin. Dr. Soh, seeing the report for the first time, looked at Carriero with a big smile. Missing was the mention of a mass or tumor.

The tumor was gone.

While the two exchanged a high-five, Soh told Carriero that he was truly a miracle man.

Carriero couldn't wait to share the amazing news with his track team.

"I sat the team down and told them that this did not take place in the vacuum of pure science," he said. "I wanted them to know that in a very real sense their love and prayers and the well-wishes from them and their families had an impact on my recovery.

"I told them they have a rather unique opportunity here because at some point in their lives, unfortunately either a family member or one of their extended family, will experience cancer," he said. "You have in front of you a survivor. This particular guy -- me -- survived because of you. Now you can do the same thing with other people."

e-mail: mmonnin@buffnews.com