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Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 9:41 PM

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Volleyball coach fights cancer with attitude

Don't admire Angie McKinnell because she is a four-time cancer survivor at age 32. Although many understandably do.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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SAMMAMISH — Don't admire Angie McKinnell because she is a four-time cancer survivor at age 32.

Although many understandably do.

Don't look up to her for the bring-it-on attitude that inspires many of the volleyball players she coaches at Eastside Catholic High School and student-athletes she mentors at the University of Washington.

Many still don't know the whole story, that McKinnell was given two to four weeks to live because of her rare lung cancer — nearly three years ago. That she's trying to get healthy enough for a lung transplant.

You can marvel at her unshakable strength and unwavering humor — who else sees a possible leg amputation as a potential for half-price pedicures? But you're mistaken if you think those are the only qualities that make her special.

Sister Mary Tracy, Eastside Catholic president, said McKinnell has a winning spirit, as a coach and a person.

Tony Wroten Jr. credits her for making a major impact while tutoring him at Washington last spring, before he declared for the NBA draft.

"She turned my life around," said Wroten, now with the Memphis Grizzlies. "She's the only one who stayed on me."

The two stay in touch.

"Whenever I'm complaining or mad about something, I think of Angie," Wroten said. "She has it 10 times worse than whatever petty thing I'm going through."

He plans to make her impression lasting with his next tattoo: Marine Tough. It's tattooed on the inside of McKinnell's left wrist in honor of her grandfather, a former Marine who didn't survive his battle with cancer.

For years, McKinnell shied away from telling people about her disease — which most recently returned last spring, shortly after she was promoted from assistant to head volleyball coach at Eastside Catholic.

"I saw it as a weakness," she said. "I didn't want people to know. I've done a lot in athletics. I've done a lot in my schooling and that kind of stuff, and I always feel like I'm tagged, 'You're great, because you do this while you have cancer.' I just want to be great."

She didn't want anyone's pity and hated the way people looked at her with sad eyes when she had no hair after radiation treatment. Now she sees an opportunity to help make great things happen by sharing her story.

"I just am to the point that I feel like I'm here for a purpose," said McKinnell, whose once-blond hair has grown back autumn and at nearly two inches can pass as a style.

When she decided to plan a "No One Fights Alone" cancer awareness event Monday night at Eastside Catholic, she wanted to do something to inspire others to do more than simply wear a pink bow in support.

Pink is associated with breast cancer, and there are more than 20 other cancers with their own colors. You can see them represented in the warmup T-shirts Eastside Catholic players will wear as the No. 5 Crusaders prepare to face Bishop Blanchet at 7 p.m. Monday.

All shirts have "No One Fights Alone" printed on the front. On the back, each says, "I play to fight" and then the kind of cancer the color represents. McKinnell's shirt is tan and says, "I coach with lung cancer" — and she feels compelled to tell everyone she's never smoked a day in her life.

She expects to be emotional when she shares her story at the school assembly earlier in the day. She will challenge students to go home and ask about the kinds of cancers that have affected loved ones and to honor those who have lost the battle and those who are winning against it. McKinnell admits she sometimes struggles to understand why she is still here and so many of her "chemo buddies" aren't.

As a teenager, McKinnell's challenges came from injuries, rather than illness. She was a promising volleyball player in Central Oregon before undergoing a series of knee injuries that now total 12 — including a knee replacement in 2011.

McKinnell was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer one week before her 21st birthday, her senior year at Oregon State University. It returned again before she was given a clean bill of health after rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

Then came the real sucker punch. For years, McKinnell was told she had sports-related asthma. But while at Texas Tech in 2009, working as a counselor and life-skills coordinator in the athletic department, a lung collapsed. Further tests revealed a rare form of lung cancer, already at Stage 4.

"I could tell this was going to be a new fight, and very different," McKinnell said.

She moved back to Oregon to be with her parents and went to work part-time in their irrigation business, which enabled her to get health insurance.

Despite chemotherapy, the cancer spread quickly. In December 2009, she was told she had two to four weeks to live. She cried when her parents gave her the diamond earrings she routinely put at the top of her Christmas list, realizing they thought it would be their last together.

But doctors removed most of her lymph nodes and slowly McKinnell began to improve. The following summer, a close friend asked McKinnell to help her coach volleyball at Culver High School and life began to feel normal again. She decided to pursue her master's degree at Washington. There she met Mike Bryant, who asked her to join his volleyball staff at Eastside Catholic.

The Crusaders placed second at the 3A state tournament and when Bryant stepped down after one season, McKinnell was offered the position. In February, she discovered the lung cancer had returned. Radiation led to 11 weeks of chemotherapy, which she completed just before receiving her master's — all without missing a day of work as a graduate assistant in the athletic department.

Many of the student-athletes she tutored helped put together what she calls a "chemo book" with their pictures and well-wishes, one she carried with her to each treatment. McKinnell developed an infection in the knee she had replaced and nearly faced amputation before it healed.

She said the support she receives at Washington and Eastside Catholic has been a major factor in her recovery.

And then there's McKinnell's own resolve.

"I get a lot of credit for my positive attitude, but sometimes I think I just have a false sense of reality," she said. "I'm just determined that this is not changing my life."

Instead, Angie McKinnell continues to change the lives of others.

Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or sringer@seattletimes.com

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