Joel McDonald jokes that if he had a penny every time someone told him he was too young to have cancer, he would be rich by now and could retire.
The 47-year-old Hibbing boys basketball coach learned the bad news about his bladder cancer returning earlier this month.
“That’s pretty tough news to hear,” McDonald said by phone Wednesday from Hibbing.
McDonald was first diagnosed last October with bladder cancer — which his mother, Darlene, died from in 1997 — and had surgery Nov. 1 to remove a cancerous tumor.
Instead of chemotherapy, McDonald opted for immunotherapy treatment known as Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, where live tuberculosis bacteria is inserted into the bladder in the hopes of producing antibodies to build up immunity to the cancer cells.
But a cystoscopy April 28 at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, revealed that spots had returned to his bladder. A biopsy a week later revealed cancer had returned, though it is considered non-invasive, as it has not spread beyond the confines of the bladder.
“I was pretty beat up the day they called and let me know my pathology results, " McDonald said. "You hope for the best and fear the worst. This wasn’t the worst news I could have gotten. If it was invasive, that would be the worst news because then it’s not controllable and it’s outside the bladder, in lymph nodes and tissues.”
McDonald, who has spent 21 seasons coaching basketball at Hibbing, where he also teaches history and geography, was given the choice to do the same form of immunotherapy, a chemotherapy option or have surgery to remove the bladder.
Since doctors discouraged further BCG treatment — giving it less than a 10% chance of success — and were even less sold on chemotherapy, McDonald opted for the third choice. He made the decision Monday during a Zoom teleconference with Mayo doctors, including urologist Igor Frank, and will have robot-assisted surgery July 14.
“(Dr. Frank) told us in the consult that he has zero concern of it becoming invasive between now and July,” McDonald said. “One of the things that he said that stuck in my mind that confirmed what I am doing is right, he said, ‘If this kind of cancer you have becomes invasive, this cancer kills.’ The only way to cure it is have it removed.”
A portion of McDonald’s colon will be used to create a new bladder — termed a neobladder — that will connect to his kidneys and the rest of his urinary system and remain inside his body.
McDonald says he is confident he will be in good hands and hopes to be able to continue coaching and teaching.
McDonald graduated from Chisholm High School in 1991 with a state-best 3,292 points — a mark that stood 15 years. He was coached by his father, Bob, who holds the Minnesota high school state record in any sport with more than 1,000 career victories.