High School Boys

November 22, 2011

Carthage's Ventiquattro Determined to Beat Prostate Cancer

Coach V faces 31 percent survival rate, is speaking out about disease

by Sirage Yassin | LaxMagazine.com

Longtime Carthage (N.Y.) boys coach Kirk Ventiquattro, who has coached the Powell brothers, among others, is in the fight of his life, battling stage 4 prostate cancer.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

For as long as Kirk Ventiquattro can remember, every great feat he's attained has been reached the same way: hard work.

Ventiquattro, the longtime lacrosse coach at Carthage High in upstate New York, has helped develop some of the most prolific lacrosse players the sport has known. Names like Powell, Coffman and Grimm have all been groomed under his tutelage.

"I'm not the smartest guy in the world. I don't know more than anybody else," Ventiquattro said. "But I've always said and lived by this motto: If all it takes is hard work, I can do that. And that's what I'm going to do."

Now, more than ever, the New York Hall of Fame coach is leaning on his personal creed to guide him in the fight of his life. In July, Ventiquattro, 52, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After struggling through the initial shock and disappointment, Ventiquattro decided to live with his disease aloud, sharing his story in hopes of preventing others from walking a similar path.

His message is clear: Get tested. Become educated. Prevention is the best cure.

The National Cancer Institute cites that a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, in conjunction with a digital rectal exam (DRE), are the most common ways to help detect prostate cancer in men 50 or older. Most doctors consider a PSA level below 4.0 nanograms per milliliter as normal.

Ventiquattro's level was extremely elevated at 26.

"I took my first PSA test at 52, and the ignorance is my fault," he said. "For the first month I couldn't look myself in the mirror. I was so disgusted at myself for letting this happen."

Doctors describe Ventiquattro's condition as very aggressive. Like most cancers, his has four stages. Originally diagnosed as a stage 3-B patient, Ventiquattro's condition has since moved to stage 4.

Ventiquattro has already had his prostate removed, is currently undergoing hormone treatment, and still has his most trying rehab stages ahead of him.

Despite the most turbulent five months of his life, and instead of basking in self-pity, feeling sorry about his affliction, the man widely known as "Coach V" has decided to use his situation as a way to minister to others.

With faith as his backdrop, Ventiquattro has set out on of string of public speaking engagements entitled "The Game of Crosses." There, Ventiquattro implores audiences to become knowledgeable on preventative measures of prostate cancer, so they can have healthy, prosperous families and live long. (The widely popular mustache growing competition held in November, or "Movember," is for prostate cancer awareness.)

Ventiquattro's greatest regret is not that the cancer was discovered, but that he waited so long to get tested. There were indicators. Last November Ventiquattro began to experience abdominal pain that he dismissed as residue from previously dealing with kidney stones.

There were also increasing trips to the bathroom throughout the night that disturbed his sleep, setting off the body's natural rhythm. He decided to wait out the end of the following lacrosse season to visit the doctor.

He always fashioned himself on doing the good things to care for his body. He hasn't consumed an alcoholic beverage in 28 years, never smoked and is an avid exerciser.

He said there's no way to pinpoint exactly how he got it. But he did grow up Italian. And in his home there was a bevy of dinners that consisted of rich pastas and red meat, foods that many journals caution against in the fight to prevent prostate cancer. Ventiquattro is also a dairy lover, but has since relinquished that desire completely.

In a matter of months Ventiquattro has become quite educated on prostate cancer, its prevention, its treatment and, the aspect he prefers to focus on most: its cure.

"He wants to beat this disease, just like he has with every single game he's ever stepped into," said Ryan Powell, the former four-time All-American at Syracuse, two-time MLL MVP, and Team USA co-captain in 2010, who played for Ventiquattro from 1993-96. "He's a competitor. He's a fighter. And he's attacking this situation the same way."

Ventiquattro's quest for answers has led him to many places. To literature. To counsel. To learning the stories of others who've battled and survived. He points to Steve Lavin, the men's basketball coach at St. John's University in New York, who on October 6 had successful prostate cancer surgery and is expected to make a full recovery.

"All I know is who I am. If 31 percent of the people can beat it, why can't I be one? That's my mentality."

-- Kirk Ventiquattro

Ventiquattro's lacrosse ties have served him well too, and he humbly admits that the sport has set him up handsomely to beat this disease. Judging by the outpouring of goodwill and various donations, who could argue his proclamation?

In the months since the new broke, many people have stepped forward to lend support. Old teammates. Old rivals. Families of kids who once played for him. Perfect strangers who heard and want to help out.

They've given money. They've cooked meals. They've said prayers.

Ventiquattro speaks fondly of a Texas man who wrote him a check and emphasized, "I want you to see the best doctors after all you've done for me and my kids."

Ventiquattro found a medical haven at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he travels often for what he says is the best medical care for his situation. To ease the burden of piling hotel costs, a friend offered Ventiquattro an apartment to use at his leisure.

"I'm not a guy who likes to take from anybody. It's not my nature," said Ventiquattro. "But I decided early on [in this process] that I wasn't going to rob anybody of a blessing."

In the midst of his quest for knowledge, Ventiquattro has come across many statistics. His hometown newspaper, the Watertown Daily Times, reported that the five-year survival rate for patients like him, those in stage four, is 31 percent.

"I don't know who those people were who didn't beat this disease," he said. "All I know is who I am. If 31 percent of the people can beat it, why can't I be one? That's my mentality."

At the start of 2012, Ventiquattro will begin the next critical phase on his road to remission. From January 2 to March 2 he will be back in New York, undergoing intense, five-day-a-week radiation treatment.

Following his stay he plans to return to Carthage in time for lacrosse season in the spring, back on the sidelines teaching kids the same way he's done since he helped start the program in 1988.

In the mean time he hasn't given up coaching totally. Currently he coaches seventh-grade modified volleyball at Carthage.

"I'm still tough [on the kids]," Ventiquattro said. "I still have high expectations and I give them all I have all the time."

But for the first time in his professional career Ventiquattro has been forced to evaluate how long he'll continue to coach. He understands the road ahead of him will not be easy, but he owes it to himself to work through it, the only way he knows how.

"I don't want prostate cancer to chase me away from something I've always loved," he said. "I'm not getting out now. It's not going to keep me down."

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