Saturday, December 30, 2000

Cancer brings hockey family together




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        Stefan Ustorf got the bad news on the team bus. The biopsy he had been told was “probably nothing” was certainly something. His wife had breast cancer.

        “I had a pretty good idea when they called that morning from the doctor's office,” Jodi Ustorf said. “They wanted to see me and they wanted me to bring my husband. I said that my husband was out of town. Then they told me, "Don't come alone.'”

        Jodi Ustorf did not immediately alert her husband because she was reluctant to disrupt his dream. On the day his wife was diagnosed, the Cincinnati Cyclones' center was in Maryland, competing for a position with the NHL's Washington Capitals. It was Sept.8, the first day of training camp.

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Jodi Ustorf cheers her husband at Thursday's game. With her is his mother, Siglinde Ustorf-Kreitl, who came from Germany to help the couple.
(Brandi Stafford photos)
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        Cancer is never convenient, but it has struck the Ustorfs with unusual force. She is 32 years old, he just 26, and cancer is an awful lot to absorb at those ages. Jodi compares chemotherapy to “a hangover times 10,” and characterizes her medicinal herb paste as “mud with rocks.” These traumas, however, are temporary. Permanent scars include those left by a mastectomy, breast reconstruction and the termination of a wanted pregnancy.

        Yet out of this painful experi ence the Ustorfs have become evangelists — eager to tell their story as a warning to women who feel lumps and fail to get them checked.

        “It's important to us,” Jodi Ustorf said. “This happened to me for a reason. You need to live life for today and for now.”

        On this day, Jodi Ustorf waits for her husband to finish his morning skate at sprawling Sports Plus on Reading Rd. She sits at a table outside the Cyclones' practice rink, bundled up against the cold, a black hat concealing the devastation chemotherapy has caused her coiffure. Cheery as a flight attendant — the job she held when she first met her German-born husband — she is capable of playing her condition for laughs.

        “When my hair started falling out, I got out of the shower one day and Stefan was there,” she said. “I asked him, "Do you have a gel for volume?'”

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Jodi watches as Stefan helps their son Jakob put on his sweatshirt after the game.
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        Her husband, a worrier, is more solemn. Stefan Ustorf no longer lies awake after bad games, reliving mistakes, because life has dealt him larger problems. He started the season striving to return to the NHL, but as soon as the call came confirming his wife's cancer, Ustorf asked the bus driver to return to the rink so he could advise his coaches he was leaving.

        “When I first came back, I was out of shape and my mind wasn't on hockey,” he said. “Now that the surgeries are over, I can see where everything's going. I've had a lot more time to educate myself. And I'm starting to play better. The team's been playing pretty good, and they've been dragging me along.”

        Under normal circumstances, Ustorf would be playing for the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine. Knowing the Ustorfs live in Mason and that Jodi's family is from Dayton, the Capitals placed Stefan instead with the Cyclones, anticipating his request.

        Hockey's small world has closed ranks around the family and its cause. Emily Cole, wife of Cyclones wing Erik Cole, often serves as a sitter for the Ustorfs' 3-year-old son, Jakob. Thirty members of the Cyclones booster club joined a recent march to benefit breast cancer research. The Dayton Bombers, an East Coast Hockey League team, are holding a benefit raffle Jan.13.

        “This is a disease about awareness,” Jodi Ustorf said. “My mother had breast cancer, but at 54. I thought: "I'm 31 years old. It's nothing.' I eat a lot of the right foods — broccoli, cauliflower. I work out. But I think it doesn't matter what you do. I wonder how many young women are out there who are not getting checked.”

        With early detection, the outlook is optimistic. Jodi Ustorf plans to wear her bathing suit next summer and expects her surgical scars to go undetected. Wednesday night, she watched Mario Lemieux's return to hockey and rejoiced at the resilience of another cancer survivor.

        Stefan Ustorf was in awe.

        “I see what my wife's going through,” he said, “and I say, "How did he do it?'”

        tsullivan@enquirer.com

       



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