The Carmel High girls’ field hockey team almost never won, but its coach, Brenda La Mica-Hoge, taught her players to be proud of the small stuff—each well-executed play, each blocked shot on goal. Brenda knew all about small victories: She showed up for work during seven of her eight years battling breast cancer, right through the 2005 season.
“She was very strong. She didn’t talk about her cancer; she focused on the sport,” says Sarah Schulman, a Carmel High alum who played on Brenda’s team from 2000-03 and considers the coach her hero. (Sarah is the daughter of Weekly production coordinator Toni Schulman.)
In her college admissions essay, Sarah recalled Brenda having fun with the team. “Picture this short Asian woman in brightly colored mismatched outfits, slowly walking to the field with a mohawk,” she wrote. “Now, Brenda did not always have a mohawk. She has been bald; she has had curly hair that the team died pink, short soft kitten like hair, all this from the chemotherapy.
“We didn’t care that we lost,” adds Sarah, now an Arizona State University kinesiology student. “We loved the game. We loved Brenda. We loved each other.”
Brenda was a jock, a Carmel native who also coached synchronized swimming and studied physical education at San Jose State. Following her doctor’s advice (which she’d put off for a year and a half), she had a routine mammogram in 1998. When her doctor called to tell her she had breast cancer, she and her husband of two years, Tim Hoge, could hardly believe it. She was only 32 years old.
The next month Brenda underwent a radical mastectomy, followed by six rounds of chemotherapy and a regimen of drugs intended to suppress malignant growth. But two years later the cancer came back, this time in her spine, and she went through another 30 rounds of chemo at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.
A year later Brenda’s back pain made the strong young woman walk, Tim remembers, like a 90-year-old. Surgeons at the University of San Francisco put cement between two of her lumbars to strengthen her vertebrae.
A year later, in April 2003, the cancer returned, this time in about 100 tiny malignant spots in Brenda’s brain. Doctors exposed her to 30 rounds of pinpoint radiation using an instrument called a gamma knife, but six months later the cancer was back. Doctors tried radiation again, but within six months the cancer had re-appeared. It would not let Brenda go.
In late 2004 Brenda began making monthly trips to Oregon Health & Science University, where a surgeon injected chemo via a catheter running up to the blood-brain barrier. Over the next 11 months Brenda’s brain absorbed six rounds of chemo, the maximum amount that the doctors would allow. The treatments temporarily sapped her cognitive abilities, and she had to learn how to dress and eat all over again.
In April 2005 local doctors tried another radiation instrument, called a cyber knife, but they were hesitant to continue after Brenda fell and smacked her head on the floor. The cancer cells were pressing against her brain, affecting her equilibrium.
In November of that year, a nurse broke painful news: There was nothing else doctors could do. Brenda died on March 9, 2006, three months shy of her 40th birthday.
“This lady was a rock,” Tim says, bringing a heartbreaking story full circle. A purple bracelet symbolizing hope for a cure circles his wrist. “She was my hero. And that’s why I relay.”
Tim, a Seaside resident, chairs the Monterey Peninsula Relay for Life. The event—which isn’t a race, he stresses—benefits the American Cancer Society and is held nationwide. After a Survivors’ Lap honoring people in remission, participants walk or run around a track for the next 24 hours, with each 15-person team having a member on the track at all times.
“People who are hard-core about it don’t sleep during the relay,” Tim says. That includes him—and when Brenda was alive, she kept vigil too. Throughout the night luminaria light the track, each one dedicated to someone who has battled cancer.
Tim and Brenda were part of the inaugural Monterey Peninsula event in 2001. Last year the Peninsula Relay drummed up $77,000 for cancer research, and its goal this year is $100,000. A $5 donation per person during the barbecue will add to the pot.
All proceeds benefit the American Cancer Society, which invests in about $130 million in cancer research each year. The nonprofit also lobbies for laws to reduce tobacco use, improve health care access and boost federal cancer research funding.
Sarah Schulman joined Brenda’s team for the 2002 Relay, performing a jazz dance on the field in her honor. That was the first time she saw Brenda, a woman normally so stoic and strong, cry. That same year Brenda ran through downtown Carmel as a torchbearer for the 2002 Winter Olympics Torch Relay.
Tim had expected researchers to discover a way to beat cancer before it took Brenda’s life, but he still holds out hope that they’ll find a cure. “Until that time,” he says, “I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.”
PACIFIC GROVE HIGH SCHOOL WILL HOST THE MONTEREY PENINSULA RELAY FOR LIFE JUNE 9-10. THE SALINAS RELAY FOR LIFE WILL TAKE PLACE ON JUNE 22-23, AND MARINA’S HAPPENS JULY 20-21. PROCEEDS WILL BENEFIT THE AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY. TO DONATE, CONTACT APRIL DALY AT 772-6528