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'All I can do is fight'

Lyden, UK's diving coach, battling stage four lung, brain cancer

By Michael Smith


The Courier-Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Michael Lyden's nightmare began with a persistent cough.

The University of Kentucky's diving coach couldn't remember the last time he had been sick. After all, his nickname is "Iron Mike."

When the Wildcats' divers ran stadium steps in the off-season, he was at the front of the group. When they went for two-mile runs, he was with them stride for stride. He considered himself somewhat of a fitness fanatic.

So when a group of three doctors in long white coats walked into his hospital room and told him that he had lung and brain cancer, Lyden, 49, couldn't believe it.

"I still don't understand it," he said. "I've always been in good shape, I've never smoked, I've taken good care of my body. Then for a doctor to come in and tell you that you've got stage four lung cancer … it just didn't make sense."

That was more than three months ago. Lyden, now bald from the aggressive chemotherapy treatments, thinks he's on the road to recovery. About two weeks ago he returned to his team's 6 a.m. practices and now works the better part of a normal day, although exhaustion sometimes gets the better of him and he retreats home for a long nap.

He's still learning how to listen to his body to know when to scale back. Sometimes that means missing a practice, which in Lyden's world is the equivalent of a preacher taking Sunday off.

But considering how far he's come in a relatively short period, he'll take whatever time by the pool he can get.

"My attitude is that I'm going to beat it," Lyden said. "All I can do is fight."

And along the way, Lyden has learned that more than a few people have his back.

He was honored on Saturday at UK's Lancaster Aquatic Center for his contributions to the Wildcats' diving program in 13 seasons as its coach.

The night before he thought he was going out for a quiet dinner, only to walk into a room full of ex-divers who came from as far away as Portland, Ore., St. Louis and Montgomery, Ala., to surprise their former coach.

His former athletes, with the help of assistant coach Margo Lynch, combined their efforts to make a huge poster with a collage of pictures. At the bottom, it read, "We love you, Mike."

"The funny thing is that it's pulled all of us back together," said Beth Thomas, a former UK diver who lives in Louisville. "I hate that it had to be something like this to make it happen, but it shows the impact Mike has had on all of us.

"When I came to UK I didn't have a lot of self-confidence, but when I left I did. Mike has so much strength in him, and he makes everyone around him stronger. He helped make me the person I am today."

Platform for success

Tina Johnson Ybarra, a former All-American, was a UK diver in 1994 when Lyden was hired. Until that time, most of UK's divers preferred the springboard to the platform, but Lyden changed that. He challenged Ybarra and her teammates to take on platform diving.

By the time Ybarra finished at UK, she was second in platform diving at the NCAA meet.

"When he told us that we were all going to do the platform, I was like, 'Oh, no.' None of us did that," Ybarra said. "But Mike showed how much he believed in all of us to do it. That really shows you the power of a coach to help others reach their potential. Mike did that for all of us."

The same way Lyden pushed his divers, he's pushing himself, leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of information on the disease that's trying to kill him. Between 15 and 35 percent of those diagnosed with stage four lung cancer survive a year, according to cancerhelp.org. About 2 percent make it five years.

The early returns from his radiation and chemo have been encouraging. Eighteen radiation treatments killed the seven lesions in his brain, and so far the chemo has shrunk the tumors in his lungs and lymph nodes by anywhere from 10 to 30 percent.

He also believes that an herb-based diet, which includes roots from the Amazon, red clover, apricots and 32 ounces of carrot and celery juice a day, has given him the strength to fight cancer.

"The first week and a half, I was given the worst scenario," he said. "I'm way too young to throw in the towel. I just looked at the stats and threw them out the window."

Lyden still was trying to come to grips with the news that he had cancer last October when one of the doctors put the odds against him in perspective.

"He told me that a lot of people in my position choose to do nothing," Lyden said. "That's not what you tell a patient."

The doctor clearly didn't know Lyden. He used all of his contacts and within days met with a team of cancer specialists from the school's Markey Cancer Center.

Soon, it was determined that Lyden's cancer was inoperable.

"And the thing is that I felt totally normal, except for the cough," he said. "It was just a shock."

Dealing with chemo

For now Lyden is learning to live with the draining chemo treatments every 21 days. For about 4-5 days after the treatments, he feels like he's got a severe case of the flu. Steroids help marginally.

He took a dose of chemo on Dec. 23 and spent Christmas Day wanting to do nothing more than stay in bed.

"I felt like a vegetable," he said. "I didn't want to talk; I didn't want to move."

But sometimes Lyden thinks the good days are starting to outnumber the bad. Or at least that's the approach he's taking. His fellow coaches and diving pupils are amazed at his attitude and determination.

The way he looks at it, though, what other choice is there? His wife, Emily, and three children, ages 7 to 15, know only "Iron Mike."

"When we found out, we just decided it was time to get Team Lyden gathered up and get a game plan," Emily Lyden said. "Cancer doesn't hit just one person, it hits the whole family. We've just tried to be very honest with the kids. When they ask questions, we do our best to explain.

"It's just been a roller coaster of emotions, lots of ups and downs. It's been very difficult, and it still is, but we've received so many cards and phone calls, a lot of support that's just been invaluable."

It's funny, Michael Lyden said, that without cancer a lot of his most rewarding moments as a coach might never have happened.

In December, Lyden rushed over to the pool after a chemo treatment for a meet that already had begun. He walked into the Lancaster Center and struck up a conversation with another coach.

After a few minutes of talking, Lyden started looking around the pool. Everyone was wearing blue T-shirts that read "Iron Mike."

Show of support

The UK athletic department also purchased blue wristbands with "Iron Mike" stamped on them, similar to the yellow "Live strong" wristbands that honor Lance Armstrong. Proceeds from the sales have helped the Lyden family deal with mounting medical expenses.

Even the athletes got into the act. Many of the male swimmers and divers shaved their heads in a show of support at a meet last November.

"Emotionally, I've been a basket case," Lyden said. "Every time the team leaves for a meet and I can't go, I just look down and cry. I'm just so thankful; the support has been so good.

"Whenever I'm feeling down, I start reading the hundreds of cards that everybody has sent and that makes me feel better."

Imagine having to stay at least six feet away from your children for 24 hours because radiation treatments have made you a walking Chernobyl. Imagine doctors purposely collapsing your lung so they can poke and prod some more. Imagine catching a run-of-the-mill ear infection that causes you to stay in bed for a week because your immune system is so weak.

Back in August, Lyden was body surfing in the Atlantic Ocean as Hurricane Katrina passed over the southern tip of Florida. He felt as strong as ever.

Then this.

"Everything my family does, everything my team does, all the plans are made with the idea that I'm going to be here," Lyden said. "And I'm going to be here."

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