By Cassie Logan | @c4ssielogan
UT Arlington volleyball alumna Chris Rudiger was raised in a competitive family. Her grandparents never let the kids just win. They first needed to learn how.
That’s the goal for any athlete – to win. It’s embedded into their minds at a young age and anything less is never accepted. Rudiger learned early in life how to be victorious despite the opponent, and was never fazed when she encountered one notorious for fighting back – cancer.
“For me, the only option was, I’m going to beat it because I’m not going to let anything beat me,” Rudiger said. “It’s also taught me that I am human and there are days that I can’t be a superhero, but I still maintain the attitude that this is not going to stop me from living my life.”
Rudiger was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer on March 11, 2015.
When her mother called to boast about scheduling routine exams in February, Rudiger hurried to arrange a mammogram appointment just two days later rather than opting for a time during spring break. The family thrived off of that friendly competition and the game would help save her life.
The January visit reported no abnormalities, however, Rudiger’s tests also revealed grade-four breast density, the most dense breast tissue one could have. Being a cancer survivor himself, Rudiger’s primary care physician ordered a sonogram for a more thorough examination.
The sonogram showed an enlarged lymph node in Rudiger’s left armpit and her next step was to endure a needle biopsy on March 9.
Rudiger was put through school bus training two days later as part of her duties as a volleyball coach and world geography teacher at Brewer High School in Fort Worth.
During the workshop, she answered the call that told her she had breast cancer. Rudiger immediately thought about how her life just changed completely within a matter of breaths.
“Needless to say I didn’t finish the training,” Rudiger said. “I was with nobody that I knew, so I immediately hung up the phone, called my family, and kicked into, All right, what do we have to do? My high school basketball coach is a breast cancer survivor, so I called her and called some other friends that are survivors and said, ‘Who did you use? What next?’
“From there it was just appointment after appointment after procedure. My breast surgeon’s goal was to find the primary tumor and hopefully it was early enough that we could do a lumpectomy. They never found a primary tumor in any of the tests and so I opted for the double mastectomy because I didn’t want to go through treatment again.”
It was Good Friday when Rudiger underwent the double mastectomy, which removed 14 lymph nodes from her left side. Four of those 14 were cancerous. The surgeon also found a five-millimeter tumor in Rudiger’s left breast.
After a two-week recovery at home, the teacher and coach returned to work on April 20. Rudiger began her chemotherapy nine days later.
The January visit alleviated Rudiger’s battle because she was able to catch the disease early in its progression and now feels ahead of her treatment. October and Breast Cancer awareness, for her, have taken on a new meaning.
Rudiger was declared cancer free on Aug. 31.
“I’ve always had the attitude that I’m going to take care of myself and have my check-ups because I don’t want to go to a doctor and them say, Had you come to me earlier, I might have been able to help you,” said Rudiger, who is presently undergoing radiation therapy as part of her treatment.
“Be your own health advocate. Other schools I’ve been to, we’ve done pink-out matches and donated to Susan G. Komen just because of the number of people that have been affected. So this year, it has a whole new meaning in a way, but at the same time it’s still about helping everybody that it can affect.”
The Maverick volleyball team is pairing with the Side-Out Foundation for the eighth year in a row to raise breast cancer awareness and donations which provide for patients, whether it is in the form of research, medical services or patient support.
UTA will also play its annual Dig Pink Match presented by Ben Hogan Sports Medicine against Texas State on Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at College Park Center.
Rudiger has been planning to take her players to a game at the university where she once shined as a volleyball star. She wanted to use it as a coaching tool to show her athletes a glimpse of the sport’s next level of play.
She asked UT Arlington coach Diane Seymour about Thursday’s match, excited that she would be surrounded by the color that gave her a certain comfort and hope, and it was then she found out she would be honored for her own fight with breast cancer.
“I’ve known Chris more than 30 years,” Seymour said. “I met her when she was in high school before we even became teammates at UTA. We are great friends and she was a great teammate.
“I have long respected her, and obviously she has triumphed here again in her fight against breast cancer. She is a positive person that brings so much to life and her craft. I’m happy and proud that we can honor her here at UTA in front of her team.”
Rudiger takes a sense of pride knowing that the volleyball program has come a long ways since it’s days on the stage.
“It’s nice to know that you were a part of building something and knowing that what they have now in some ways started back with us,” she said.
Rudiger was an integral part of UTA’s historic 1989 volleyball squad that fought its way to the NCAA Division I Volleyball Final Four. During her four-year tenure from 1986-89, the outside hitter garnered second team All-America, first-team All-Southland Conference, NCAA all-South Regional Tournament and NCAA Final Four All-Tournament team honors.
The Mavs were SLC Champions all four of her years and her performance ranks in UTA’s top 10 career kills, service aces and kill attempts categories. Rudiger was elected into the 2005 UTA Hall of Honor. She served as an assistant coach at TCU from 2000-01.
“I can remember playing at Texas Hall with 2,500 people in the crowd and the curtain being up and the baseball and softball teams lining the stage just beating on the floor when the opponent went back to serve,” Rudiger said.
“We pushed each other and that ‘89 season was magical. We had lost to Texas in ‘88 in the regional final and they went on to win, and the fact that we beat them in ‘89 at regionals was even sweeter. Not many people can say they get to end their collegiate career at the Final Four in Hawaii.”
Rudiger later coached at Mansfield Summit High School and Keller Central High School, where she was named the 2010 District 7-5A Coach of the Year before transferring to Brewer.
With so many players, coaches, teammates, teachers and students she has built relationships with, Rudiger has more of a support army to push her through remission.
“My family has been great and in that I include people who aren’t blood related because I’ve got several people who we have no relation whatsoever, but they are truly rocks for me and have held me up through the whole thing,” Rudiger said. “And my blood family, some of them have just gone above and beyond.
“I’ve also got a great network of former athletes. When they started finding out I heard from several high school and college teammates. It’s just been wonderful with the encouraging words and most of all the prayers.”
Rudiger’s current team at Brewer has been especially protective though, each player making sure she’s not overdoing or standing when she should be sitting. They even each cut a piece of her hair off before she began chemotherapy to show their commitment to her journey.
“I’ve always believed that as an educator, I don’t just teach about volleyball, I teach about life,” Rudiger said. “I want them to know that something that seems horrible can happen to you, but you can still win. You can still beat it and have a wonderful, happy life.
“Some days they look at me and think I know coach doesn’t feel good, but she’s here. That’s what I try to teach them. Be here. Fight through everything in your life. Don’t ever give up. Don’t let anything beat you.”
Thank you Coach Rudiger for being strong and showing the way to battling such a bad luck situation.