Joe Gillette loves football.
And it’s that passion for the sport that has helped the University of Maine wide receiver overcome two bouts of cancer.
Gillette was first diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma following his junior season at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Treatment started immediately, meaning he had to leave campus after class on Thursdays and drive six hours to Cleveland, Ohio, for treatments.
He is from nearby Strongsville, Ohio, so he would spend Thursday nights and Fridays at his family home and make the drive back to Lafayette on Saturday.
He underwent six months of chemotherapy treatment followed by two hours of radiation treatment.
“It was tough. I got pretty sick,” the soft-spoken Gillette said. “But I tried to push through it and tried to stay healthy so I could keep playing.”
Despite facing such an incredible hurdle, Gillette was still involved with the team and participated in workouts when he was on campus. It allowed him to keep in shape physically and improve his mental health during treatments — and now continue his football career.
“I knew I still had two years of eligibility remaining and there was hope I could keep playing,” Gillette said. “I love playing football and I loved my teammates. I had a bunch of support. That’s what helped me get through it.”
Gillette said Hodgkin lymphoma “isn’t super dangerous, but it is still tough.” Hodgkin lymphoma patients have an 89 percent survival rate for at least five years, according to the American Cancer Society.
It is the most common form of cancer among people 15-19 years of age.
After the treatments ended in June, Gillette was pronounced cancer-free and returned to training camp before his senior year at Lafayette 13 months ago.
He played in four games last season before being informed that the cancer had returned. This time, it meant he had to leave school and move back into his family home in Strongsville.
“I had a different type of treatment. It was more intense but a little shorter,” Gillette said.
His chemotherapy treatments ended this past January and he finished his degree.
The treatments worked. He was cancer-free again.
Gillette began looking for a graduate school where he could earn his MBA and UMaine fit the bill. He liked the players and coaches at UMaine so he transferred, but it took time for him to return to full strength.
“It was pretty tough. It took a while to get back in shape. But I pushed through it,” said Gillette, who joined the UMaine program this summer. “I feel good. I’m pretty much back to my normal self.”
“I have never seen anyone transition better in a shorter amount of time than him,” said UMaine head coach Jordan Stevens. “He came in and got to work right away. There was no figuring it out and taking months to get going.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Gillette, who caught 70 passes for 928 yards in his four seasons at Lafayette and ran the ball 17 times for 167 yards, is UMaine’s third-leading receiver so far this season with nine catches for 61 yards. He has also averaged 6.7 yards on his three punt returns.
His battle with cancer and his perseverance to keep playing has been an inspiration to his teammates.
“Seeing a guy go through something like that, and then going through what we go through every day is super motivating to me,” UMaine junior safety Abdul Stewart said.
Junior cornerback Kahzir “Buggs” Brown agreed.
“He’s a tough guy. Not too many people beat cancer once, and he beat it twice. He pushes me to be better and not take things for granted,” Brown said.
His teammates said he is a quiet person and doesn’t talk about his battle with cancer.
“He just comes out and works his tail off every day,” said junior wide receiver Montigo Moss, who added that Gillette’s ability to deal with cancer and keep playing shows he is a “fighter.”
Gillette considers himself fortunate to be cancer-free and able to keep playing the game he loves. He said football gives him something to work toward.
“If I didn’t have football, I would probably be sitting home, being sick and feeling sorry for myself,” Gillette said.
Gillette and the Black Bears will entertain Stony Brook in a battle of 0-4 teams at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Morse Field in Alfond Stadium in Orono.