- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

Jillion Potter thinks about it all the time. The Rio Olympics. The dream of climbing the podium with the rest of the U.S. rugby team to have a medal draped around her neck.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s still possible,” she says toward the end of a phone call Friday, before she gets back to building some shelves in her Denver home with help from a teammate.

“But,” she quickly adds, “I don’t want to be naive about it either.”

Potter, you see, is battling an even tougher opponent than anyone she might go against in Brazil, where rough-and-tumble rugby will be making its return as an Olympic sport in 2016.

A dreaded adversary, a foe that draws a shudder anytime it’s mentioned, one so feared that many people refer to it only by its first letter.

Cancer.

Scary stuff, but Potter isn’t moping around feeling sorry for herself in the midst of a life-and-death struggle against a rare form of the disease. A conversation with this 28-year-old is filled with plenty of laughter, plenty of hope, plenty of inspiration.

Boy, that’s something we all could use a lot more of from the world of sports, mired in ugliness ranging from the domestic abuse crisis in the NFL to the shenanigans in college football to Michael Phelps getting another DUI arrest.

We want someone worthy of our cheers.

Potter is a good place to start, even if most Americans only think of rugby as a wackier form of football, played without the helmets and bulky pads.

She was young, in top physical condition, and had no history of cancer in her family when she discovered an annoying lump under her chin back in June. She thought it was just an infection, or maybe a blocked salivary gland. When it still didn’t improve after a few weeks, she went to see a specialist.

Turns out, it was a tumor.

Even then, Potter and her doctors weren’t overly concerned. From all indications, the mass appeared benign, and she was even cleared to play in August at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Paris. She felt a little more tired and winded than usual, but chalked that up to the nature of the competition. Three days after the Americans finished sixth in the tournament, Potter was back home having surgery.

Three weeks later, she finally learned the tumor was cancerous.

Stage III synovial sarcoma, to be exact.

This form of cancer is extremely rare - less than 1,000 cases a year in the United States - but particularly insidious because it tends to strike before the 30th birthday.

“I had no idea this was even possible for me,” Potter says from her home, where she lives with her wife of just over a year. “It was like driving a racecar. Everything is just speeding by you, that whole moment. Then you kind of stop listening. It sounds bad, and you’re kind of in shock. They were talking about cancer. They were talking about how rare it is, how big the tumor was, what that all means.”

There were plenty of tears at first, but Potter quickly bounced back.

“OK,” she remembers asking, “how am I going to beat this?”

Chemotherapy is the first step, and Potter just wrapped up an initial 21-day cycle that included four days in the hospital. She will need to undergo at least three more rounds of chemo, and maybe as many as five depending on how the disease is responding. Each one, she knows, will likely be harder on her body than the last. After that, she’ll need more surgery and radiation.

Potter already seized a bit of control, shaving her head before chemo did the trick. That was no small gesture. She’s always had long hair, and lots of it, so it was tough watching it fall to the floor.

She had to do it, though.

“That was the first step,” Potter says, “on my path to beating this thing.”

Humor helps, too.

Her friends are always joking about how unique she is, so it’s only natural she would have a rare form of cancer. For her next trip to the hospital, Potter is already considering how to trick out the IV pole she lugs around the grounds on her daily two-mile walks, a needed respite while the toxic drugs are flowing into her body.

Maybe she’ll adorn the pole with a jersey and some rugby gear.

“It already has a name,” Potter says, chuckling. “I call it ‘Slim’ because, well, it’s very slim.”

She is fortunate to have health insurance, which covers the bulk of her costly treatment. But she’ll still have to pay thousands of dollars out of her own pocket, so her friends in the U.S. rugby community have set up a Web site for donations, https://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/support-jillion-potter-s-recovery/241609 , raising more than $26,000 as of Friday.

Any money she doesn’t need will be donated to another worthy cause, the Sarcoma Foundation of America, https://www.curesarcoma.org .

While Potter hasn’t talked with her doctors about the odds of survival, preferring to stay in the moment, she does hope to rejoin the national team next summer.

“We have her jersey here waiting for her,” says Ric Suggitt, coach of the Women’s Eagles.

Potter was part of the U.S. team that finished third at last year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens, the fast-paced version of the game that will be played at the Olympics. The Americans are definitely a medal contender heading into Rio.

Potter believes Americans will fall in love with rugby once they get to see it on the Olympic stage.

We’ll love it even more if she’s there.

___

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963


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