Molly Gasuik noticed that the packed school bus was unusually quiet for some reason.
Typically, the Nichols softball team was abuzz on its bus rides to away games, but the drive between Buffalo and Our Lady of Mercy School in Rochester in mid-April of 2019 was different. Finally, Gasuik, the Vikings’ softball coach, turned around to find out why she didn’t hear any of the typical chatter that came from her team.
Each of her players looked toward her, and she noticed that each girl wore an orange ribbon in her hair. Orange is the color designated for kidney cancer awareness. Gasuik had told her team the previous week that she had been diagnosed with renal cell cancer.
“I was not expecting that, at all,” Gasuik said, more than a year later. “And when I tell the story, I still get tears in my eyes.”
A cancer diagnosis didn’t stop Gasuik from coaching. Neither did a pandemic, even though Nichols’ softball season was canceled in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Coaching has sustained Gasuik through her fight against cancer.
“It was such a great thing for me to coach, and it kept my mind off what I was going through,” Gasuik said. “I love coaching, and the hardest part (in 2019) was the time where we ended the season and me having surgery.”
Coaching and coping with cancer
Gasuik is a South Buffalo native and a 2010 graduate of Mount Mercy who played softball at Erie Community College. She pursued coaching when she enrolled at Canisius College, and she became Nichols’ softball coach before the 2019 season.
The first thing Nichols’ players noticed about Gasuik was her passion for softball. That was obvious when Nichols’ players participated in the process of interviewing coaches. If a player wanted to stay after practice and take a few extra batting practice swings or field a few extra ground balls, Gasuik stuck around.
“Her best day is when she is able to come to Nichols and coach,” said Megan Kyte, a pitcher and a 2020 Nichols graduate.
But the Vikings didn’t know how agonizing certain days could be for Gasuik, who had been having back and stomach problems in the previous three years. Some days she came to practice and games exhausted, and in pain.
She underwent a scan in March 2019 that revealed a spot on her left kidney had grown larger, and a biopsy determined it was two types of cancer inside one tumor: cystic clear cell renal cell carcinoma.
According to the National Cancer Institute, clear cell renal carcinoma is a form of kidney cancer that has a five-year survival rate of 50% to 69%, unless it spreads to other parts of the body, and the five-year survival rate drops to about 10%.“Mine was at Stage 2, even though kidney cancer isn’t found until later in life, when it metastasizes,” Gasuik said.
Still, she coached. Her diagnosis came April 17, 2019, the morning of Nichols’ first game on its Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association schedule, against Mount Saint Mary’s.
“I have a great support system, with my family and my friends, but those hours between finding out that I had cancer and going to Nichols at 3 p.m. for a game, I put it in the back of my head because I needed to put the girls first,” Gasuik said. “It was a lot. I don’t remember a lot of the emotions, but it happened so quickly. I thought, ‘This is what I have, and I will deal with it.’ ”
She didn’t tell her team about the diagnosis until the next day. She asked her team to sit in a circle in the grass of the Nichols softball field. She told her players that she was about to discuss something important, and not to freak out. She told her team she had a cancerous tumor on her left kidney. She planned to wait until after softball season to undergo surgery to remove the tumor.
“I remember right when it happened,” said Lexi Villafuerte, who was a senior on the Nichols softball team in 2019. “She didn’t say that much to us about it, because she didn’t want to freak us out. But she explained to us after practice one day that she had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Nothing was wrong. Nothing felt weird about practice. But when she told us, immediately, her first response was, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.’ I don’t remember what exactly she told us or what she was going to have done. She told us, ‘Don’t worry.’ But she’s our coach. How do we not worry about our coach?”
Gasuik underwent surgery on June 14, 2019, to remove part of her left kidney, and did not have to go through radiation treatment, chemotherapy or dialysis treatment.
“I was lucky it was found early, and that the cancer was just contained to the tumor,” Gasuik said.
“It was such a great thing for me to coach, and it kept my mind off everything. I love to coach. The hardest part of this season was the time between where we ended the season, and me having surgery.”
Her fight, Nichols’ fight
Gasuik is a teacher, but took time off from teaching this school year to focus on her health. However, she continued as an assistant volleyball and an assistant basketball coach at Nichols, and she explained to each of the teams she coaches what she was experiencing as a cancer patient. She didn’t volunteer information, but instead did what she called “get-to-know” sessions, with groups of players and coaches.
She spoke frequently with Villafuerte and Kyte, who were co-captains of the softball team, and let them know when she had doctor’s appointments and how those medical visits went.
“My grandmother died of cancer, and I watched her go through that, and my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer again, and as I went through all of that, I couldn’t stop thinking about my softball coach,” said Kyte, who will play softball at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “I felt more connected to Molly because of this. She would ask me, ‘What’s Roswell Park (Comprehensive Cancer Center) like? What should I expect?’ In a way, I feel closer to Molly because I had gone through this, on a certain level.
“It brings everyone closer together, too, when something this serious happens.”
Nichols hosted a cancer awareness night during the 2019-2020 basketball season, and prior to the game, players held up signs in honor of individuals who have been diagnosed with or who have recovered from cancer. Several players held up signs that read, “I fight for Coach Molly.”
Those signs were affixed behind the Nichols bench, and remained on the wall at Gerard Gymnasium for the rest of the season.
A few weeks later, Nichols’ softball season was indefinitely postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, less than a month before its season opener.
“The players asked, ’What’s going to happen to our season?’ ” Gasuik said. “It was scary, because they didn’t know what to expect. It was a shock. We prepared so hard. I honestly thought we had a chance to win the Monsignor Martin championship. It was heartbreaking, especially for the seniors, because they worked so hard.”
The season wasn’t over, though. Gasuik kept in contact with her players through Zoom calls and group text messages, and made care packages for the seniors who were about to graduate.
Nichols didn’t have a senior day for its softball players, so Gasuik organized a senior salute at each player’s house, and brought flowers, balloons and handmade blankets for each girl.
“She kept the group together,” Nichols athletic director Rob Stewart said. “What really made me respect Molly even more, and it had nothing to do with her having cancer, was the respect and love that her players had for her, and the respect Molly had for her players.”
Gasuik will have to undergo scans every six months to monitor a possible recurrence of cancer. On her wrist, she wears a bracelet that reads “Just keep swimming” – a quote from the movie “Finding Nemo.”
“We’re going to learn from this,” Gasuik said. “They’re going to become stronger people because of this. Life is a bunch of challenges and how you deal with it, and your attitude, it makes a big difference.”
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