High School Sports

A shocking cancer diagnosis won't keep a beloved St. Martin coach away from her team

St. Martin's girls basketball coach Gina Bell has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
St. Martin's girls basketball coach Gina Bell has been diagnosed with breast cancer. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

When Gina Papania Bell answered her phone Friday morning, there was no hesitation when she was reminded again of her diagnosis.

“I've got it,” she said.

The St. Martin High School girls basketball coach was diagnosed with breast cancer, invasive mammary carcinoma, about three weeks ago.

She waited a couple of weeks before informing her players during a team meeting.

“They were upset, but they had a brave face for me,” Bell said. “They just said that they're behind me and that they're going to fight this together.”

It's apparent that Bell, 46, will have more than her players backing her up. Members of the St. Martin community have rallied around the history teacher as she begins her battle with cancer.

St. Martin athletic director Jesse Kanode credits principal Dina Holland for helping ease Bell's mind and her top assistant, Chalandra Hilliard, for finding different ways to offer support — emotionally and financially.

“When I first found out, I freaked out a little bit,” Hilliard said. “She's always been there for me. Our relationship is unique because she was my coach in middle school. Now, she's my best friend and like my sister. My immediate response was to make sure I take care of her, whether that's chauffeuring her around or taking her to doctor's appointments. I want to be there however she needs me. The fundraisers are something easy I can do to get people involved.”

The first fundraiser is set for Monday with a blood drive taking place from 1-6 p.m. in the St. Martin High School library. For each pint of blood donated, Bell will receive $10.

The blood drive, which is sponsored by the St. Martin JROTC, will be open to anyone who wants to donate.

There are also shirts being made that will be available for purchase for $15 each. Chick-fil-A meals will go on sale May 4 and Hilliard is putting together a fundraising walk for the end of May.

Boys basketball coach Charlie Pavlus and his program are also pitching in with a 3-on-3 basketball tournament for July. And there will be a collection taken during the South Mississippi All-Star Basketball Showcase in May.

The diagnosis

Bell first discovered a lump on her breast in December when her Lady Yellow Jackets were well into a successful season.

“I told my assistant coaches and told several of the girls, but we were about to start district play,” she said. “I knew we would be in the state playoffs. I told them and I told myself that I'll wait until the season is over to see what it was. I wasn't really worried about it. You always think, 'Cancer is not going to happen to me.' We finished the season, I called my doctor and made an appointment and here we are.”

Bell has many more visits with doctors ahead of her with appointments set for April 20 and 23 at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“We're going to meet with the team over there and decide the best route for me. Go from there,” She said. “You know I'm going to fight. There's no getting around that.”

While the primary focus is on her health, Bell is determined to show up for work as much as possible.

“I've got the best administration in the world,” she said. “There's no other way to say it than it's just family. They've been working with me. There are people willing to cover my classes. I love being at school. I don't feel right if I'm not there. I've never done this before. Depending on how I feel, I'll be at school as much as possible. I'm not planning on taking a leave. I've got plenty of days available because I've been at St. Martin 20-plus years. I've got those days to use and friends behind me.”

'Big part of her life'

As for the basketball team, Hilliard is there to lead the way if Bell can't be on hand to coach.

“Of course she's going to be involved. She can't not,” Hilliard said. “The girls are a big part of her life. We only have one free month and that's July. We spend a lot of time with these girls. The girls are ready to do whatever we need of them. When she can come, she'll come. When she handles her business, we'll be there waiting and ready to go.”

The St. Martin girls basketball program has reached new heights under Bell's direction in recent seasons. The Lady Yellow Jackets advanced to the Class 6A semifinals in Jackson in 2016 and again made the trip to Jackson this year, falling 56-43 to Starkville in the Class 6A quarterfinals to finish a 25-4 season.

“The first thing I told her is, 'This is your job as long as you want this job. We'll hold this place for you. You don't need to worry about it until your fight is won,' ” Kanode said. “Everybody is being proactive. We want to take as much worry off her plate as we can.”