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Last published at August 8, 2009 at 11:12 PM

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Steve Kelley

Michelle French not defined by illness

Melissa Erickson remembers how nervous she felt the first time she visited Michelle French in the hospital. It was right before last Halloween...

Seattle Times staff columnist

ISSAQUAH — Melissa Erickson remembers how nervous she felt the first time she visited Michelle French in the hospital. It was right before last Halloween, and her good friend had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Although she knew French's personality was as buoyant as soap bubbles, Erickson wasn't sure who she was going to see when she went into that hospital room. Wasn't sure what the mood would be, or what the prognosis was.

"Going into her room, I was scared," Erickson said. "But she had the biggest smile on her face. You could tell there were hints of scariness in her eyes, but she was the same old Frenchy and we weren't scared any more."

On the white board in her hospital room, French had written: "No Debbie Downers Allowed." It was a signal to her visitors that it was fine to come there and laugh.

"We sat down and it was like her disease didn't even matter anymore," said Erickson, the former Washington basketball player who is facing her own enormous challenges with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. "We knew then that there was no way she was going to be overcome by it. She was so cool. So upbeat. We just knew she was going to be fine."

French is one of Seattle's unsung sports stars. She was a two-time Parade All-American as a soccer player at Kennedy High. She became an All-American at the University of Portland in 1998 and won a silver medal with the 2000 U.S. Olympic team.

She took on her cancer with the same tenacity she played soccer.

Her college coach, Clive Charles, died from prostate cancer in 2003. Everyone who knew and played for Charles was inspired by him, before and after he got sick.

"His whole life was about teaching people, whether it was ways to look at soccer, or about life, or about simplicity," French said. "And that's kind of how I felt about my illness.

"There was a reason I was given this to deal with. Because I think I could handle it and, at the same time, it was a great opportunity for me to teach, and especially for all the little kids that I coach to go through this process with me."

A coach of three premier-level soccer teams for the Eastside Football Club (ages 9 to 16), French told her players about the disease, explained the game plan, invited them into her hospital room, erased their fears. She taught them the same way Charles had taught her.

"I think the way you mentally attack things can really affect the outcome," said French, 32, who just finished another season with the Seattle Sounders in the United Soccer Leagues W-League. "As long as you can stay positive and deal with whatever it is you've been dealt, more times than not, it's going to work out for you.

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"I wanted to stay active. Wanted to be able to go out and see the kids and not be at home with the shades down. To be out there and continue my life was the biggest thing."

Her cancer also became her teacher. It taught her that she didn't have time to linger on her misfortune.

"After you go through something like this, you never have a bad day," French said. "As long as you're here and you're alive, and able to do what you love to do, well, I feel like I'm very fortunate."

Before her diagnosis, French, who played three years in the Women's United Soccer Association, was preparing to return to the new women's soccer league. She said that after her diagnosis, she cried for "about 15 minutes." Then she listened to her doctor with the same intensity she listened to her coaches. She followed the recovery plan as if it were a scouting report.

Through her seven rounds of chemotherapy, through her 17 days of radiation treatments, French continued to see her players and continued, as much as she could, to exercise. She set a goal to be ready for the Sounders' season.

"I think having the goal to want to play again was a huge thing," she said. "And exercising as much as I could, it made me feel like I wasn't sick. I think that was the biggest thing. Having that athlete's mentality that you want to defy all odds, or do something unexpected, kind of pushes you a little bit more."

Like a fighter pulling herself off the canvas, she took every punch the cancer threw at her. A bout of pneumonia during her cancer treatments put her back in the hospital, but barely slowed her recovery.

French got tired, but she never got down. Less than six months after her diagnosis, she was back on the field. She played every minute of every game for the Sounders.

And her long-term prognosis is excellent.

At work, Erickson has a picture of French smiling as she is getting her head shaved, before chemotherapy treatments.

The picture, the smile, define Michelle French. Not the cancer.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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