Staying strong to clear life’s hurdles

Mike Gilmartin

Head athletic trainer Mike Gilmartin was back at work seven months after he was diagnosed with cancer.
“Don’t worry about tomorrow until you get there,” he says. Photo: Steve Woltmann

“I don’t want cancer or being a survivor to define me, but it is something that has happened to me,” says Mike Gilmartin.

There were 205 days from November 20, 2010, when Gilmartin received the sobering news he had cancer, until June 13, 2011. That was the day Gilmartin returned to his job as UIC’s head athletic trainer, a position he’s held for 15 years.

When you’ve lived 54 years, 205 days goes by in the blink of an eye. But those days were defining for Gilmartin.

During the summer of 2010, he noticed a lump half the size of an egg on his throat.

“I had just been sick, so I thought a lymph node had just blown up,” said Gilmartin, an assistant athletic director. “I didn’t do anything about it for a couple of months — I wasn’t tired, I didn’t have a loss of appetite and I was running really well.”

When the lump remained after several months, UIC team physician Mark Hutchinson urged Gilmartin to have it examined. He went in for a biopsy before traveling with the men’s basketball team to a tournament in Toledo, Ohio.

“We were in the locker room before the game, and I checked my phone,” Gilmartin said. “I had a message from my doctor asking me to call him as soon as I could. I knew it wasn’t good when he was calling me on a Saturday and asking me to call him at home.”

The doctor explained to Gilmartin that he had cancer.

“I didn’t know if I had six months to live or how much longer,” Gilmartin said.

Doctors identified cancerous cells on Gilmartin’s right tonsil. It seemed like an easy fix: cut the tonsil out. But doctors explained that it would take at least six weeks to heal from the procedure.

Initially Gilmartin thought he would work during the first month of treatment but found it challenging after the first week. He was using a feeding tube that was in place 18 hours of the day.

“Mike didn’t even want to take time off for chemotherapy,” said Denny Wills, special assistant to athletics. “He would call me from home and have me check on things. Once he was back, he didn’t miss a beat.”

For seven weeks, he received radiation Monday through Friday, including three rounds of chemotherapy.

He followed up with his oncologist after the first week.

“When she asked me how I was doing, I said, ‘Awful. This is really kicking my butt,’” Gilmartin said. “I thought I was ready to fight, but I can’t even wake up and get around.”

As the days passed, they became more trying not only physically — Gilmartin had lost 40 pounds — but also mentally.

“When I was really struggling, I would take a piece of advice I received from a former co-worker: think about getting through today,” he said. “Don’t worry about tomorrow until you get there.”

What got Gilmartin through those tough weeks was the love and support of his family and friends.

Associate athletic trainer Pat Donovan worked with student athletes and staff to put together a video letting Gilmartin know how much the UIC community supported him.

“Mike is someone who is there for other people,” Donovan said. “So many student athletes talk to him about issues and a lot of people really missed him while he was gone.”

Gilmartin returned to work in June and by August he could complete a full week of work — and run a half marathon with his daughter, Annie.

“It was a great feeling to cross the finish line holding hands,” Gilmartin said.

He gave his marathon medal to one of his nurses.

“I will never be able to repay all of the people who have helped me,” he said.

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