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Originally published January 27, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified January 28, 2010 at 2:10 PM

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Beamer basketball coach in fight of her life

Less than three weeks ago, Heather Sugg's focus was only winning girls basketball games as coach at Beamer High School of Federal Way. Now she is in the fight of her life as she battles an inoperable brain tumor.

Seattle Times staff reporter

FEDERAL WAY — Heather Sugg sits on the Beamer High School bench and touches her temple.

A headache inches closer, but she has no time for it or that irritating lethargy her medication causes. A grimace quickly melts into a grin and Sugg puts her hands to better use, clapping encouragement to her Beamer High School girls basketball team.

"Good job! Keep fighting!"

An early 7-1 lead over league-leading Bethel on Tuesday night faded away, and the Titans are tumbling toward their 15th loss of the season. Sugg is reduced to cheerleader, handing over her head-coaching duties to Dave Cox.

But sitting's not her thing. She's a foot-stomper, a pacer, a picture of perpetual motion.

Before they found the brain tumor, that is.

Heather Sugg, 36, a wife and mother of four, is suddenly in the fight of her life. The astrocytomas tumor, located in her left temporal lobe, is cancerous. And inoperable.

And in typical style, Sugg has a simple message for it as she readies for her first radiation treatment next week: Bring it on!

"I always tell my (basketball) kids to play like animals," she said. "I'm going to fight like an animal."

And those who know her expect her to win this battle. Cox, a former Seattle University women's coach now filling in for Sugg for the rest of the season, said he and the players are staying positive.

"Every day there are stories of people beating cancer," he said. "That's how we're going to support Heather, by saying, 'There's no other option. She's going to beat this.' "

John Sugg, who met his wife in 1999, said the news hit the family "like a ton of bricks." But Heather remains strong.

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"If anyone can handle this, it's Heather," John said.

Heather, who was an assistant at Beamer for two years before taking the program over last season, is very close to her players, some of whom she coached as grade-schoolers through the Federal Way Boys & Girls Club.

They have showered her with cards, posters and flowers. One large red heart reads: You're the heart of our team.

"She is our second mom," senior Madison Wood said. "She looks out for everyone. This is especially hard for her because she has to focus on herself and take care of herself."

And let others help take care of her family, which includes John and four children — Elise, 17; James, 15; Spencer, 7; and Paige, 5.

Each evening, a friend arrives with dinner for six. Forbidden to drive because seizures could return, Sugg must rely on others to get her kids to school and for her own rides to treatment.

The volunteers, many involved in the youth baseball program the Suggs co-founded with another couple, keep multiplying.

"It's overwhelming," she said. "We call it our village."

The supportive calls, e-mails and text messages are endless. Sugg's Facebook page has exploded. Her hometown of Chewelah, where she was a basketball star before tearing up her knee, is abuzz.

"The whole town knows," she said of the Stevens County community near Spokane.

Less than three weeks ago, Sugg knew nothing about the tumor.

The first symptoms surfaced Jan. 8 as she prepared to coach against Graham-Kapowsin. A tickle in her throat would not clear. Numbness in her right arm. Difficulty catching her breath. She wrote words on the locker-room chalkboard for her players, a plea for them to play with enthusiasm, but couldn't speak.

Sugg shrugged it off as stress and anxiety. She coached the game and didn't even tell her husband. She had two more "episodes," later diagnosed as seizures, the next day and three the day after.

"I finally called my mom," she said.

Her mother and oldest daughter convinced her to go to the emergency room. Nothing prepared them for what the X-ray, CT scan and MRI showed — a mass in her brain.

Everything happened so fast. She was in and out of Harborview Medical Center and met with doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center. It was too risky to remove the tumor, she was told. A biopsy Jan. 14 left her with a small metal plate and 11 staples in her head — and a tortuous five-day wait for the results.

"That was pins and needles. ... I didn't want to know what I had," she said, her voice cracking and tears welling in her eyes. "I didn't want to know."

The diagnosis was cancer, but there was one piece of encouraging news: It's a Grade 2 tumor, which is less aggressive. Grade 4 tumors are the fastest growing.

"That gives me great hope," Heather said.

She and John have been upfront with the older two children, but told the younger two that Mommy has a bump on her head that needs to come out.

Heather surprised her Beamer team with a visit last Thursday and openly answered questions.

She sat on the bench Friday, and the Titans rewarded her with their first league victory and second overall win of the season.

Next is a PET scan Monday to find out more about the tumor. Heather expects to start radiation Tuesday or Wednesday and is prepared to lose her long, highlighted hair.

Doctors have not sugarcoated her chances if the radiation isn't successful. But Heather is already thinking about basketball camp this summer and returning as head coach next season.

And she is determined to be there for Senior Night next Tuesday, even if she starts radiation that day.

"There's no way I'm going to miss that," Heather said. "I don't care if they have to carry me in here. I'll be here one way or the other."

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

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