Mike Pane remembers the first day he coached football like it was yesterday — and the unusual way in which he met then-Romulus head coach Chris D’Ercole more than a quarter-century ago.
“There happens to be two players scuffling, so I grab both of them and we walk into the coach’s office,” Pane remembered with a laugh. “I said, ‘I’m Mike Pane, your new assistant.’
“It’s been over 20 years since. I’ve enjoyed a nice career, and I’ve been very fortunate.”
The latter sentiment is foremost in Pane’s thoughts these days. Being alive following a months-long battle against a deadly cancer gives a person a different sort of perspective on their mortality — and makes this Thanksgiving Day unlike any other in Pane’s life.
The story he and his wife Michele have to tell is one of dedication, perseverance, community and awareness. As a whole, it is a powerful message of inspiration.
March 27, 2017, is a date Mike and Michele Pane will not forget.
“It will be seared into my brain forever,” Michele remarked.
That is the day Mike, the director of athletics and dean of students in the Romulus school district and head football coach at Geneva High School, was diagnosed with sacral chordoma. It is a rare and slow-growing cancer that often eludes physicians until its late stages. It occurs in the bones of the skull base and presents itself in the sacrum and/or cervical spine.
Pane admits to experiencing some back and tailbone pain as early as the 2016 football season. He chalked it up to aging — Pane recently turned 50 — and did not give it serious thought until he discovered a lump on the gluteal muscles of his left leg.
“This is a part of the awareness message that I want out there,” Pane said. “I waited about two or three weeks before I even went back to get checked. That’s my message: Don’t wait.”
He visited his primary physician, Dr. Charbel Mousallem, who ordered an X-ray and CT scan — and initiated a long and tenuous fight Michele has waged with health insurance companies.
Eventually, Mousallem made his diagnosis. He referred Mike to a Rochester neurosurgeon, Dr. Howard Silberstein. Pane underwent an MRI and CT scan to make sure the cancer had not metastasized.
The tumor was large — the size of a small basketball, Pane said — and surgery was scheduled for May 11. Dr. Michael Milano, a Rochester oncologist, performed the procedure.
The next step was to get connected with a new and recommended form of treatment, proton beam radiation therapy. It was at University Hospital at Cleveland — specifically, at the Seidman Cancer Center — where Pane underwent 43 treatments. The first one was July 10. The last one occurred Sept. 8.
Dr. David Mansur was Pane’s oncologist in Ohio. Mansur and his colleagues became almost like a second family, Mike and Michele agreed.
“Dr. Mansur said, ‘This is going to be an aggressive treatment, but we are going to kick it — and kill it,’” Michele said.
Michele estimates she has spent more than 100 hours on the phone and computer related to her husband’s medical situation, talking and emailing anyone associated with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Starting with the initial X-ray and CT scan, and nearly every step of the way, Michele has found very little to be simple.
That goes for the six-week period between her husband’s surgery and the start of the radiation therapy.
“You will never know what I went through for us to go to Cleveland, because the insurance company fought with me every step of the way,” Michele said. “I have met with (state) Sen. Pam Helming about what we went through … to not be giving people who have been diagnosed with cancer, to have to fight for the treatments that they deserve to have, is unbelievable.”
Through it all, Michele remembers the people who helped her the most.
“We really struggled with the insurance company, but there were key people along the way that made a difference,” she said. “Mary Helmer at Excellus in customer service/care was our customer care nurse manager, and she will still call me to this day to see how Mike is doing.”
“Thank you to the Senator, who wants to address this at the New York state level, and for listening to me so that we can try and advocate for others who might have this treatment in the future.”
Plenty of support
The secret to success, as Mike knows full well — and a big reason he has remained upbeat throughout the fight of his life — is “a very understanding wife and a great family.”
Mike and Michele met when they were teachers at Frank Knight Elementary School in Seneca Falls. In May, they will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary.
“It blossomed, from like to love, and he’s just been an incredible stepfather to my kids,” Michele said.
Roseann Pluretti, 28, is working towards her Ph.D. in communications at the University of Kansas. Anthony Pluretti, 31, is the director of campus safety and transportation at Wells College.
“My family, Michele, and my sister, Julie, they were my guardian angels,” Mike said. “Jennifer Harris and Arlene Eddington and the Thrive to Survive organization stayed in touch and were very helpful.”
Mike benefits from a wide-ranging network of support through athletics and his professional career, too.
He played for legendary coaches at DeSales High School: Harry Furman in football; his father, Frank Pane, and Pete French in baseball; Tony Alvaro in basketball. After graduating from DeSales in 1985 and Hobart College in 1989, he began his coaching career as the head of JV basketball at Romulus, working under Rick McCulloch.
He wound up heading the Romulus football program for two seasons and DeSales for five years before joining Dave Whitcomb’s staff at Geneva High School. Pane was defensive coordinator when the Panthers won a state championship in 2006.
He succeeded Whitcomb in 2010 and is 49-20 as Geneva head coach, including a 6-2 mark in 2017.
“I’ve had some great people to learn from,” said Pane, specifically alluding to D’Ercole, Hobart coach Mike Cragg, and Whitcomb. “I always thought that I could coach football, but I really learned from (Dave) in particular, and under his leadership and mentorship, how to run a program.”
He mentioned many of his former players, including current Canadian Football League player Jasper Collins Jr., Colin Cooper, Sean Cunningham and Shane Sweeney, as the biggest reasons for his success at Geneva.
“We really preach family and making the kids buy into the fact that their success on the field is going to come from a sense of belonging, and knowing that there is a lot of love and care for them,” Pane said. “We care more about them as young men than as football players.”
As most cancer survivors know, the end of treatment is not the end of worrying.
“We are scheduled to go in December for a follow-up,” Pane said. “Today I feel good, and I’ve been very fortunate, which is a testament to the great doctors and surgeons.
“We consider everything to be a positive. All of our doctors have been just wonderful.”
Pane will need MRIs once every three months for the next few years to make sure his cancer — or “our cancer,” as Michele terms it — doesn’t return.
One of the constants throughout the process was Mike’s desire to get back to coaching and teaching. Pane will continue to be that source of “calm and positive” energy on the sidelines, as well as a mentor and a leader in school, both in Romulus and Geneva.
While he missed a chunk of preseason practice while finishing up his treatment in Cleveland, he was on the sideline for every one of Geneva’s games. And, he gradually returned to a normal routine as the fall arrived.
Steve Marchitell took over Pane’s administrative duties while Pane was in Ohio.
“There is no way that we would have had the season we did without him,” Pane stated.
“The administrations at both Romulus and Geneva allowed me to get healthy, and that provided a huge comfort level for me,” he continued. “Chris D’Ercole, who came out of retirement to help the Geneva football program this past year; Romulus Superintendent Marty Rotz; K-12 Romulus Principal Chris Puylara; my secretary at Romulus, Bernie Payne; Geneva Athletic Director Randy Grenier; and the athletic secretary, Carol Davis — all those people did a lot for me and helped me in every way.”
“Mike is a fantastic friend and a part of our extended family at Romulus,” Rotz said. “He is very inspiring. He wears so many hats for us here at Romulus … Mike is a champion of the combined sports programs, offering more opportunities to more kids, and was always trying his hardest to get back and healthy.”
“Everyone, from the minute we got to Strong Hospital to the minute we left, I can’t say enough about the people at Proton Therapy and University Hospital in Cleveland,” added Michele, who paces the sidelines on Panthers game days. “It’s really important for people to know how great these school districts are and that there is such heart in the Geneva football program. It truly is a family.”