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Shearers Team Up Against Toughest Foe

Louisville High husband-and-wife basketball coaches face his leukemia and bone-marrow treatment.


CHATSWORTH — Dennis Shearer and his wife, Paula Getty-Shearer, are dealing with a life-and-death situation the same way they coach the girls' basketball team at Louisville High, without the slightest hint of backing down.

Accustomed to fashioning upsets with overachieving squads, the couple talks confidently of beating the odds against their most daunting opponent: leukemia.

Dennis entered UCLA Medical Center this week in preparation for a bone-marrow transplant Tuesday for which doctors give him only a one-in-three chance of surviving.

Paula believes his chances are much better than that.

"We're talking about beating this thing like we're going to pull off an upset," she said. "I just feel like we're going to do it."

Likewise, Dennis has not wavered in his faith.

"I like to think I have a good chance because I'm in fairly good physical health, I think I'm in good mental health, I think I'm dealing with it OK and I've had great support," said Dennis, 52, who serves as assistant coach to Paula, 33.

Mr. and Mrs. Coach

The Chatsworth residents known at Louisville as "Mr. and Mrs. Coach" have supported each other throughout the ordeal--outgoing Paula offering words of encouragement and soft-spoken Dennis bracing for the fight of his life with quiet determination.

Paula approached friends and family with news of Dennis' worsening condition, allowing her husband time to become more comfortable talking about it.

"I'm a shy person in general," Dennis said. "I'm not very good at talking about myself, [but] I do think that it's something my friends need to know."

The Shearers have prepared for the worst, arranging for a burial plot in Idaho next to Dennis' deceased father and putting his living trust in order, but they remain optimistic.

The couple celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary last summer by vacationing in Hawaii and at Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming, trying to squeeze in as many activities while Dennis was still able to travel.

"Every day I get up and thank God that I am here and that he is with me," said Paula, a former All-Southern Section player at Royal High.

Dennis hopes to remain by her side for a long time.

His goal is to be on the bench for Louisville's season opener Dec. 3 in the Fillmore tournament.

"You're not going to keep me off it," Shearer said to his wife while sitting in the couple's living room last week. "I plan on being back coaching next season. I'm just looking forward to being able to get back working with the girls again and being a part of the team. That's a very important motivational factor for me."

Basketball has always been important to Shearer, a former Seattle prep standout who met Paula during a pickup game in 1990. He reluctantly gave up playing with friends last month because of pain in his upper torso.

As his condition worsened in recent weeks, Shearer has battled sleeplessness, fatigue and discomfort. Yet he has managed to stay active by playing par-three golf, cycling and lifting light weights. Food has lost its appeal, but he forces down three meals a day to help maintain weight and strength.

"Everyone thinks their lives are so hard and then you look at him and how he's dealing with everything," said Melissa Hearlihy, girls' basketball coach at rival Alemany. "He's a fighter and a great role model for the kids, and these are lessons that go far beyond the basketball court."

The Challenge

Shearer doesn't see anything particularly noble about the way he is coping with a life-threatening disease. He says he's only doing what most people would in his situation.

"I've never thought, 'Why me?' " he said. "This is a challenge you have to take, whether you want to or not."

Shearer has lost 14 pounds since he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia more than a year ago. Troubled by fatigue, he visited his doctor on Jan. 22, 1997--his 51st birthday--and was told his white-blood-cell count was more than 20 times the normal level.

The disease remained in the chronic stage until it was detected to have advanced to the accelerated stage following a bone marrow test on March 19.

Before that, doctors prescribed daily shots of interferon, a protein with anti-viral and anti-cancer qualities, in an effort to force the leukemia into remission.

Shearer's only hope for survival is a bone-marrow transplant.

Dr. Gary Schiller, an associate professor of medicine and hematology/oncology at UCLA Medical Center, said Shearer has a "25 to 35%" chance of surviving a bone-marrow transplant, even though the donor--Shearer's brother Rick--is considered a perfect match.

Schiller said Shearer's age and other risk factors present potential problems. For instance, Shearer's system could reject his brother's bone marrow, or the bone marrow itself might not accept Shearer and kill him.

There is always a chance the leukemia could return.

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