Checking in With UVA Legend Debbie Ryan

April 24, 2019 By Kelly Casey, Kelly Casey,

For reasons no one can explain, Debbie Ryan is two decades out from facing pancreatic cancer – which was an almost-certain death sentence back in 2000, and remains so today. But not even treatment for such a formidable opponent would derail her 34-year career as head coach of the University of Virginia women’s basketball team.

Since retiring from coaching, Ryan hasn’t slowed down one bit. Using the recruiting skills that she honed as a Division I coach, she’s calling upon members of the community to join her newest pursuit: fighting cancer and diabetes, and bringing top-level orthopedic care to Charlottesville.

A native of Titusville, New Jersey, Ryan brought her fighting spirit to UVA in 1975 to attend graduate school in education and serve as assistant coach for the fledgling women’s basketball program. Upon graduating from the Curry School of Education in 1977, Ryan was named head coach.

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“Back then, we basically didn’t really have any money,” Ryan recalled. “We didn’t have a locker room. We had urinals in the bathrooms. We got hand-me-down uniforms and equipment. ... I had to fight through a lot of things early on in my career to get what we needed.”

With more than 700 career wins and enshrinement in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennesee, Ryan stands among an elite group of coaches.

“I really loved the athletic life and I learned so much from my fellow coaches and administrators,” she said. “Obviously, the Final Four years (1990-92) were great years. But some of the best years were the building of the program. The early years and watching players graduate and go on to do great things themselves,” including serving as president of the WNBA, as former Hoo Val Ackerman did.

“That really is the crux of why you do this,” Ryan said. “It’s not the wins and losses. Those things are all great in the moment. But what your players do behind basketball, and knowing that you’re an important part of somebody’s life for the rest of their life, is really far more satisfying.”

Ryan during timeout talking to womans basketball team
Ryan says wins and losses are secondary to how her former players have achieved after graduation (UVA Athletics photo)

From Courts to Cancer Center

Basketball will always be Ryan’s first love, but a life-disrupting diagnosis redirected her passions to advocating for patients and health care philanthropy.

A point guard in high school and college who had only an ankle injury once, Ryan was always in top physical shape. But in November 1999, she noticed a stomachache that she attributed to an ulcer and the stress of coaching at the elite level. Because symptoms of pancreatic cancer are so vague and it is a difficult cancer to detect, Ryan wouldn’t learn what she had to face until August 2000.

Around the same time, another high-profile member of the Charlottesville community would also learn she had pancreatic cancer.

“We were diagnosed about three weeks apart,” Ryan says of Emily Couric, then a Virginia state senator embarking on a campaign for governor. “Emily was just so dynamic and she really wanted to change the face of cancer care, not just here in Charlottesville, but for the commonwealth that she served. ... We’d hang out in the old Cancer Center. We were jammed in small rooms in the old hospital.

“We designed our own cancer center in our minds and we sent all of our notes to Leonard Sandridge (then UVA’s executive vice president and chief operating officer). We wrote about light, colors, gardens, what we needed right then and what we wanted in the future. Emily wanted a five-star hotel next door, and I wanted a whole floor to be an exercise facility. We wanted it to be a place to heal that was full of hope.”

Emily Couric Cancer Center Entrance
Ryan and the late state Sen. Emily Couric pushed for a new cancer center while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. The result: the Emily Couric Cancer Center. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Couric did not live to see the 2010 opening of the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center, which reflects not only her name, but much of her vision.

“Emily defied the odds. She was able to live with a fairly good quality of life for 18 months, which was unheard-of back then,” Ryan said. “That was largely due to the skill of Michael Williams (chief of the division of hematology/oncology at UVA Cancer Center). He was known worldwide for his innovative treatments even back then.”

Williams also oversaw Ryan’s care for the nine years after she had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy that, somehow, has left her free of cancer.

“On Aug. 14, 2000, Rayford Scott Jones removed the tumor in my pancreatic duct,” Ryan said. “He was a very skilled surgeon. I then had some chemotherapy and radiation therapy. But that’s not the answer. It was just pure luck. ... Something fought it.”

She added, “Dr. Jones [now retired from surgery] and I have become very good friends. He often says, ‘I have no idea why you’re still here, but I’m sure glad it worked out.’”

Recruiting Cancer Fighters

Since retiring from athletics in 2011, Ryan has thrown her focus into health care philanthropy, bringing the same passion she brought to the court. “In basketball recruiting, it’s all about relationships, and it’s the same thing here,” she said. “The better you connect with people, the more likely they are to join in your cause.”

Her enthusiasm for her newest role as principal gifts officer for UVA Health System Development is evident when she starts talking about her latest effort, the construction of a new orthopedic center on Ivy Road.

“I’m working on raising money for the Ivy Mountain project. It’s a very big deal. I don’t think people realize how big of a deal it is,” she said. “The Cancer Center made a big splash in this community. This is going to make a big splash, too, because we’re all going to visit it.”

Digital drawing of the new Ivy Mountain orthopedic facility sits on an easel in a field
The new Ivy Mountain orthopedic facility, currently under construction, is “going to be an amazing place,” Ryan said. (Photo by Kay Taylor, UVA Health System)

The orthopedic outpatient care facility will serve everyone from the elite athlete facing an acute injury to the baby boomer with a worn-out joint.

“For injuries other than major trauma, you can go directly to this center,” Ryan said. “Everything is there. You get diagnosed there, have your operation there, an up to 23-hour stay there, and rehab there. It’s going to be an amazing place.”

Ivy Mountain is only her latest pursuit. Ryan has also long been helping to raise funds for a number of causes – eradicating childhood cancers, diabetes and, of course, pancreatic cancer.

When Ryan faced pancreatic cancer, she was among only 4% who lived longer than five years. That statistic is improving; the overall five-year survival rate now stands at 9%, according to the American Cancer Society.

Ryan points out that it’s still the only cancer with a single-digit survival rate, but hopefully it will soon hit double digits. UVA researchers are getting closer at being able to find pancreatic cancer before it becomes deadly.

“We’ve gone from nowhere to somewhere in a few years,” Ryan said. “The best and the brightest we have are working on this.”

At UVA, more than 20 scientists (biologists, genetics experts, cell signaling experts, engineers and oncologists) are working together to better understand the biology of pancreatic cancer and how to develop new strategies for treatment that will result in more cures, better quality of life and longer survival times, said Dr. Todd W. Bauer, chief of the UVA Division of Surgical Oncology.

“The single greatest impediment to our progress in the field of pancreatic cancer is our need for funding to support these research programs,” Bauer said. “We are looking for community partners to help us in this fight.”

In Debbie Ryan, they already have a top recruiter.


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Kelly Casey

UVA Health System