News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 7, 2011

Beating the odds: Now cancer free, Prevo avoids surgery

David Hughes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — For the Rose-Hulman women’s basketball team, bald is beautiful.

That’s because Jon Prevo, beginning his sixth season as its head coach after serving 12 seasons as a men’s basketball assistant at the engineering institute, has watched hair fall off the top of his head from cancer-related chemotherapy treatments since May.

Prevo, 51, first noticed discomfort in his upper esophagus and upper abdominal region in late April. At first, his family doctor — Mark Schuld — thought he might have acid reflux disease.

But when Prevo started vomiting later that week, drastic action became necessary.

“I thought it was something that might go away on its own,” he told the Tribune-Star. “But when the vomiting started, I got sick real quick. . . I had lost 11 pounds in about four days.”

His wife Deanna suggested he check into the Union Hospital emergency room that weekend. Heart problems were ruled out, then he received IV fluids and started to feel better.

Schuld ordered new tests the next day. Results of an upper gastrointestinal (GI) exam revealed there was a cancerous mass in Prevo’s stomach.

Football-sized tumor

“The tumor had gotten so large that nothing could pass through my stomach and anything I took by mouth had to go somewhere,” Prevo explained over the weekend. “It was about the size of a football.”

At the time, Schuld told Prevo: “I need to put you in the hospital immediately.”

Prevo recalled Schuld saying the tumor could be a treatable type or it could be an untreatable type that requires immediate surgery to remove it.

Prevo was transferred to Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis, where doctors inserted a feeding tube so he could receive nutrition. By early May, the 6-foot-4 Prevo had lost 15-16 pounds.

“For over three weeks, I couldn’t take anything by mouth,” he pointed out.

On May 19, Prevo and his family received the final diagnosis — Burkitt’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer.

“We were caught off guard and really shocked,” reflected Prevo, who had no prior history with cancer.

“But with the kind of cancer I had, the best-case scenario was that it’s treatable… They started me on chemotherapy that night.”

His chemo treatments lasted four days and occurred every three weeks. He underwent a total of eight treatments.

By mid-May, Rose-Hulman players knew only that Prevo had been sick in the hospital, but they didn’t know why. So before most of them left Terre Haute for the summer, he invited them to his home in Riley, where Deanna and Rose women’s assistant coach Kevin Robinson helped give them the news.

“My wife reiterated to all the girls that my expectations for them had not changed and that I would be fine,” Prevo noted.

Among those feeling the saddest was senior forward Alisa Dickerson, who appreciated Prevo helping her deal with tough times off the basketball court.

“My mom had cancer the first three years of my college career,” she explained. “It was a serious situation.”

So learning that Prevo also had cancer was almost more than Dickerson could take.

“It hits you pretty hard,” she said. “It was one of those ‘here we go again’ things.”

‘A blessing to see him on the court’

Over time, Prevo started seeing light at the end of the tunnel, even if he couldn’t see hair on top of his head.

The chemo had shrunk the tumor in his stomach, so Prevo was gradually able to take liquids and soft food orally again. Then he advanced to solid food, which proved the chemo treatments were working.

Fortunately for the Prevos, no surgeries would be needed.

Last Thursday, Prevo received word from one of his doctors that his latest CT scan came back clean and he would no longer receive treatments.

He informed his players at practice Thursday night.

“They were very happy for me,” Prevo said as his voice cracked. “It was an emotional time for me, sharing that with them.”

“There were hugs and tears,” Dickerson mentioned.

Now cancer free, Prevo must schedule follow-up appointments with his doctors. But for the most part, the Prevo family believes the worst is over. In addition to his wife, Prevo has a 16-year-old son, Nicholas, and one stepson, Sean Leitgabel.

“My stamina and endurance are not anywhere near where they were before I got sick,” Prevo admitted, although he hopes to be back to normal in another four to six months.

He’s back up to 230 pounds, about 15 pounds less than his pre-cancer weight.

Also worth noting, this wasn’t the first time that the Prevos endured a cancer scare. Deanna previously battled breast cancer.

“One of the biggest sources of motivation for me during my treatments was my wife having breast cancer,” Jon Prevo acknowledged. “It’s been eight years [last week] since she first started her chemotherapy. . . and she has beaten it. She’s been cancer free for six years.”

Remembering her strength during that time, even though hers was a different type of cancer, gave him the strength to proclaim: “I can fight this too.”

The grateful Prevo also praised Robinson and new Rose-Hulman women’s assistant Molly Martin for filling in on coaching responsibilities when he couldn’t.

Now Prevo considers coaching the Engineers part of his therapy.

“The game of basketball has helped with my recovery,” he said, “along with my family and friends.”

Others involved in Wabash Valley basketball are glad to see him back in action.

“The blessing is that Jon Prevo is able to coach still — with the health issues he’s had to deal with,” St. Mary-of-the-Woods College coach Deanna Bradley emphasized after her Pomeroys defeated Rose last week in Hulbert Arena.

“It is just a blessing to see him on the court. It was great to see him. You know what, when things like that hit you in life, basketball is just a game. That’s all it is.”

With Prevo much healthier than he was seven months ago, Rose-Hulman will play a Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference game tonight at Manchester.

Who loves ya, baby?

On the lighter side, Prevo admits that some of his longtime acquaintances have trouble recognizing him with a bald head and no beard.

“It’ll eventually come back,” he said of his hair.

Prevo is not sure if he wants to continue with the bare look on top, thinking he might resemble the late Telly Savalas, an old-school reference totally lost on his young players.

“I think I’ll initially let it grow back and see how it looks,” he concluded.