With the addition of many new faces to the faculty this semester at Contra Costa College, there is one glaring absence.
Physical education professor and volleyball coach Zachary Shrieve will not be returning to campus this year after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Shrieve has also taken a leave of absence from his job teaching English at Richmond High School.
The 46-year-old coach showed no signs of any overt illness, but lingering fatigue and slight abdominal pain initially caused Shrieve to seek medical treatment on Aug. 23.
Shrieve stressed the importance of a healthy lifestyle to his students, even instructing the “knives over forks” theory, exploring the idea that changing eating habits from animal-based to plant-based can help control or eliminate diseases like diabetes and cancer.
That is why he was in abject shock when doctors informed him that he had cancer and it had metastasized from his abdomen to other parts of his body.
The cancer is mostly affecting the omentum, a lacy fat layered connective tissue that covers all of the organs.
Five days later, doctors informed Shrieve that his cancer was terminal and the coach was given just two years to live.
“It was a pretty bad diagnosis,” Shrieve said. “You can never be ready to get news like that. I was in disbelief. It took me a while to get my head around that.”
Undeterred by the odds, Shrieve and his family prepared to fight the disease and are committed to explore every method in existence toward finding a cure.
With limited medical options, the first step was to remove as much of the cancerous cells as possible with surgery. Then began the grueling process of chemotherapy.
“They removed 20 different small spots in my abdomen but they couldn’t get it all,” he said.
Following the surgery, Shrieve suffered an infection in his surgical wound.
He said he thought the excruciating pain was part of the recovery process, so he toughed it out before returning to the hospital nine days later. The wound had to be re-opened and cleared of infection which set back the start date for chemotherapy.
Richmond High School Athletic Director Rob Collins was one of the first people notified of the prognosis.
“It reminds all of us of our own mortality and that every day is a blessing,” Collins said. “I’m glad he’s surrounded himself with friends and family.”
Feeling that Kaiser Permanente was more concerned with comforting his final days rather than aggressive treatment, Shrieve and his family have taken matters into their own hands and begun to seek alternative methods of treatment.
“As coaches and athletes we always try to control things as much as we can and when we cannot it is difficult,” CCC men’s basketball coach Miguel Johnson said.
Non-traditional methods of treatment can be costly. Shrieve’s uncle Jim Whitty set up an online fundraiser at youcaring.com to help ease medical expenses.
The account reached its stated goal of $50,000 in 72 hours, but donations are still being accepted.
The family has a long list of treatment centers that it plans to visit.
His odyssey began Oct. 12 at UCSF Cancer Research Center and continued in San Diego at the Gerson Institute last week.
Gerson employs an alternative to western medicine offering non-toxic treatments for cancer and other degenerative ailments.
While in San Diego, Shrieve will also visit the Optimum Health Institute.
Also on the list of treatments is cutting edge viral oncology treatment. Researched at Johns Hopkins, it is a process that attacks the cells by introducing viruses to specified hosts, killing them from the inside without total body degradation like chemotherapy.
Doctors at Johns Hopkins pioneered research that defined cancer as a genetic disease and were among the first to develop therapeutic cancer vaccines.
“We have all known people who have gone through things like this so you know it is possible, but you never expect it,” CCC Athletic Director John Wade said. “To be such a great guy, it is the furthest thing from your mind.”
Aside from his positive disposition with colleagues, Shrieve’s upbeat demeanor resonated with his players and students alike.
“He is like a second father figure,” Richmond High School student Joshleen Ayson said. “He always pushes us to do our best and when we succeed he is always there to give us a high five — he is a great teacher.”
The outpouring of admiration and wishes are usually reserved for funerals, but Shrieve said it is something he wishes everyone could experience.
“You find out how much you really mean to people and make connections with people you have not spoken to in ages.” he said.
People from past and present have found ways to leave messages, share thoughts. He said he even learned of a college friend who was so influenced by Shrieve that he named his son Zach years later.
“There are things that I never would have learned without going through this,” Shrieve said.
Without the signs of fatigue Shrieve said he would have never suspected that there was any major problem.
The physical education instructor still advises that people make regular visits to their primary care doctors.