Jessamine County

East Jessamine coach battles cancer, brings joy

For East Jessamine Coach Ralph Sallee and his girls' basketball team, this season has been more a journey of faith and inspiration than a trail of victories and defeats.

It has been a winter of life's starkest lesson — how to face mortality — set against the backdrop of fun and games and youthful exuberance.

Sallee has provided a shining example.

Ten months after he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer and told he had nine months to live, after countless chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Sallee battles on, coaching and preaching, and appreciating each breath he takes.

"Some people with (terminal) cancer deal with it so differently than we have," he said. "Some people hibernate and seek quiet solitude.

"My family and I have chosen to try to keep living.

"I want to be here another 30 years, or more. But the Lord has that in his hands, and we have to trust him."

In August, 2007, Sallee got a rosy report from his doctor, Stephen Royse, after a routine physical examination.

"He told me I was one of the healthiest 53-year-olds he'd seen in a while," Sallee remembered.

Six months later, Sallee began having trouble swallowing his food. It wasn't thought to be anything serious. Maybe acid reflux. When medication didn't help, more tests followed.

On the evening of March 26, Sallee and his wife, Alesia, were at O'Charley's in Danville, celebrating their wedding anniversary.

During dinner, they took a phone call from Royse. A CT scan showed a tumor in Ralph's esophagus had metastasized and spread to his liver.

"We knew it was a serious problem," Alesia said.

That didn't lessen the devastating impact of the prognosis from Dr. Michael Horn.

"You always want it to be Stage 1 or Stage 2," Alesia said. "When the oncologist said it was Stage 4 cancer and not curable, those are words you never want to hear."

Ralph recalled it as "almost like a surreal experience.

'This is me and you're telling me I have cancer?'

"It was pretty shocking and stunning."

Horn laid out a plan of treatment for Sallee, starting with chemotherapy.

Sallee also had a plan of his own: "Trust in the Lord because he allowed this to happen to me."

The toughest task for Ralph and Alesia was breaking the news to their children.

Nate, 21, attends Morehead State and is on the baseball team. Courtney, 17, is a senior at Lexington Christian Academy, where Ralph taught and coached for 13 years.

"It hit like a ton of bricks," Nate said. "It was a numbing feeling."

Alesia said the family's faith equipped them to handle the coming adversity.

"We all trust God, all four of us," she said.

Ralph Sallee, who graduated from Cincinnati Bible College, has been a preacher at Scotts Fork Christian Church in rural Garrard County the last 28 years.

Alesia's first thought after being told her husband had nine months to live?

"This will be the miracle our church needs," she said. "God was going to use this to bring our church around and show what power he has."

Church members have rallied around Sallee with prayers and support, and they've been inspired by his presence in the pulpit almost every Sunday.

Sallee has also gotten encouragement from his extended family, and from administrators, teachers and students at East Jessamine High School and West Jessamine Middle, where Alesia has taught for years.

"They're people of faith, that's first and foremost with them," East Jessamine assistant principal Joe Matthews said of the Sallees. "They've struggled, and they've hurt but, through it all, they've kept their faith."

East Jessamine boys' basketball coach Chris O'Bryan said Sallee's "positive mind-set through all this has been inspirational.

"To go through what he's going through and never once question anything is remarkable. It speaks volumes of him and his character."

East Jessamine's assistant coaches and players have witnessed Sallee's battle with cancer up close, and it has affected them all.

"It makes you think about valuing every day you have," assistant Crystal Dean said.

"It's been life-changing," added assistant Chris Begley. "You realize life is too short. You realize what's really important.

"The girls have changed, too. They've become, in my view, more caring.

"It's not so much about X's and O's. It's 'How's Coach Sallee doing?' or 'Have you heard from coach today?'"

A couple of weeks ago Sallee had to undergo radiation treatment for a tumor behind his left ear and was too weak to attend the Lady Jaguars' game at Mercer County.

The next day the players organized a visit to his house after practice. The team showed up with his favorite juice — V8 Splash — and spirited teenage conversation.

"We wanted to cheer him up, show him we were thinking about him, and to show him our love and support," senior Erin Sieberkrob said.

The players didn't expect Sallee to make it to their next game, against arch rival West Jessamine, a few days later, so they decided to honor him by writing his name on their sneakers and wearing orange headbands.

But Sallee summoned the strength to attend. Despite a weak, raspy voice and obvious fatigue, he was on the bench for East's rousing 65-26 win over West.

The girls' energy and enthusiasm lifted his spirits.

"That's one of the reasons I keep coaching, to keep that connection with the young ladies," he said.

Sallee has always preached to his players that they will be a better team on the court if they care about one another off the court. His illness has magnified that message.

"We play more as a team because we're open with one another, and he taught us that," senior Kenzie Katzman said.

Cathy Miller, whose daughter Liz is a junior on the team, has seen the benefits of Sallee's approach.

"From the beginning, even before his cancer, he's invested in the girls 100 percent," she said. "It's not about winning or losing. It's about building character and teaching them how to live life.

"He genuinely cares about them."

And they care about him, especially now that cancer is challenging his life.

"The girls look to each other for comfort and strength and how they can come together, and how they can bless him and support him," Cathy Miller said.

Sallee feels the love.

"It's been humbling to know how many people care about you and are concerned about your well-being," he said. "It's one of the blessings that come out of something like this.

"We've tried to teach our children the two most important things in life are your relationship with God and your relationship with people.

"I've had so many people come by and sit and talk, and I've gotten so many e-mails and cards and letters ...

"We all have an impact on somebody else, whether we know it or not.

"That's why it's so emotional."

Away from basketball, Ralph and Alesia spend most of their time comforting each other at their home in northern Garrard County. He hasn't been able to teach since October. She has taken the time off to be with him.

"We're together 24/7 and appreciate the time we have to pray together, read the Bible together, watch movies together, and just being able to enjoy each other and our children," Ralph said.

The Sallees are realistic about the future, but also full of hope.

"As much as I love him, want to grow old with him, spend the rest of my life with him and know he's my perfect helpmate ... I know God will carry us through," Alesia said.

"We also know God can heal him at any moment."

Ralph said he lives "from one CT scan to the next," hoping for a miracle cure, either by his doctors or God.

In the meantime, Ralph Sallee relishes each sunrise, and every moment he has with his family, friends and basketball team.

"That Christian song — One Day At A Time, Sweet Jesus — you really start taking it to heart," he said.