The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illinois cheer coach overcomes health challenges, finds support in community

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Record
Illinois Head Cheer Coach Stephanie Record.

It was just another routine mammogram for Stephanie Record, Illinois’ cheerleading head coach. She had done an annual mammogram for the past 10 years.

After the initial mammogram, her doctors found an abnormality, leading her to get a biopsy and ultrasound to confirm the results.

She sat on the couch watching TV until she got a phone call from her primary doctor discussing the results of her examinations. It was lobular breast cancer. For a few hours, she sat absorbing the information in her mind, googling her results and researching her diagnosis. Before she told her husband, he noticed from her facial expression something was wrong.

Record began her cheerleading career at Mattoon High School in Illinois and would cheer on the Green Wave for four years. She was always interested in athletics even at a young age before donning the skirt. 

“I did gymnastics when I was younger and was always just interested in athletics,” Record said. “I played softball and basketball but then just decided to cheer. I danced in junior high. I was on the dance team and then preferred the tumbling and gymnastics piece of the cheerleading stuff. So that’s where I ended up.”

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In the fall of 1989, she entered the gates of the University of Illinois to get her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She tried out for the cheerleading team in her sophomore year and cheered for three years until she graduated in 1993.

Upon graduating, Record began coaching for a junior high cheerleading team for Centennial High School. After a couple of months of coaching, the News-Gazette advertised an opening position for coaching the varsity cheerleading team at Illinois. After throwing her hat in the ring, she was accepted and became the coach of the varsity cheerleading team for the next 30 years.

For Record’s entire life, she said she was accustomed to helping the community and those in need. She was raised in the Methodist church in Mattoon, Illinois, where her parents worked at the church’s office volunteering for different organizations, inspiring her to do the same. 

At the University, she was a part of Kappa Delta, where they shook Pringles cans on the Main Quad to raise funds for Crisis Nursery — a child abuse prevention organization. In 2008, she would become the executive director of Crisis Nursery for the next 15 years.

“I think I’ve always been passionate for children in general and youth, and so that’s been where my heart has been all of my careers,” Record said. “To be able to be on the front end of this and work with the families and the children at the same time and really help maybe change that narrative for that family is, I think, really rewarding to be able to be a piece of that.”

For most of her career, Record has been juggling multiple things at once. By day, she wore her social worker hat, working for the Crisis Nursery. By night, she coached the varsity cheerleading team.

After years of normal health exam results, Record felt shocked when she received the phone call confirming her breast cancer diagnosis.

“I had been so diligent about getting those every year and staying on top of everything and doing all the things they tell you to do, the self-exams and getting your mammograms and all of that,” Record said. “It took a while to process, y’know. I went through all the emotions, I was mad, I was frustrated, but then reality hits and you just have to kind of move forward and figure out what’s next.”

In Record’s mind, being diagnosed with breast cancer was just another thing to juggle in her world, another problem to solve. 

“I’m a problem solver, so I think that I really was like, ‘OK, how do we just get this taken care of?’” Record said. “‘Like, this is a problem, we got to fix it. What are we going to do?’”

Record’s doctors had told her they had caught the diagnosis early, which was unusual for lobular breast cancer.

“They’re like, ‘This is the second most common breast cancer; it’s like 20% of people have this,’ and I’m like, ‘That doesn’t sound very common to me,’” Record said.

Record described her lobular breast cancer as unnoticeable because it does not form as a lump like most breast cancers do. Her doctors had called it a “sneaky breast cancer” that hides on mammograms, which was why it was surprising they were able to catch it so early.

However, this was only the beginning of Record’s journey, as she experienced constant MRIs, scheduling surgeries, chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. 

Record is known by many on the varsity cheerleading team for her resilience and keeping a brave face during her time with breast cancer.

In January of last year, Record broke the news of her diagnosis to the team. Stina Sfondilis — senior in Business and captain of the cheerleading team — described Record as being strong for the entire group and kept an optimistic composure when she told them of her diagnosis. 

“I started crying right away, I was really upset,” Sfondilis said. “She’s such an important person in all of our lives and so knowing the fact that she’s been through so much already, health-wise, and then had cancer happen on top of it, it was really hard to hear.”

Despite undergoing cancer treatments, Record still supported the varsity cheerleading team. Sfondilis explained the most stressful times as a cheerleader are during football and basketball seasons. 

“It feels like (being at) a million places at once, but it’s just super quick turnarounds between football and basketball games,” Sfondilis said. “I think (Record) just texted me and wanted to make sure that everything was okay.”

Sarah Toussaint, senior in LAS and member of the team, also expressed admiration for Record constantly supporting the team.

“To see her have so much resiliency and see her have so much bravery while going through this and still giving back to people, still showing up to practice with a smile on her face,” Toussaint said. “Still showing up in general when that’s the time that she could be having with her family or resting for all she needs.”

During her experience with chemotherapy and radiation, Record said she always tried to keep a brave face for her family members and daughters. However, there were times when it wasn’t always easy to mask the effects of her treatment and stay optimistic.

“I wanted my girls to know things are OK, everything’s going OK and, you know, my family continues to call and text how it’s going; I’m like, ‘I’m OK,’” Record said. “You just don’t want to weigh everybody down with that. When you get knocked down, they can tell you know, so that’s been the hard part.”

Despite these hardships, Record has received insurmountable support from unexpected people. When Record became more public with her diagnosis, two moms from the cheerleading team who were diagnosed with breast cancer reached out to her.

Because these moms experienced breast cancer, they were able to guide Record and tell her everything was going to be okay. Record felt she was able to be vulnerable around these women and express her hardships to them without reservation.

“I never thought I’d be going through this, but you don’t realize who your biggest supporters will be, and sometimes you can’t talk to your family because you’re trying to stay upbeat,” Record said. “I really feel like they really helped me get through some of the toughest times.”

Accepting help was not something Record was used to. Crisis Nursery has a well-known phrase on its website stating that “Asking for help is a sign of strength.” Record had always said this phrase to families, donors and community members associated with Crisis Nursery, but never expected to be the one receiving help.

“I definitely had to humble myself and accept help in a lot of different ways that I normally would have been comfortable with,” Record said. “I had a lot of friends saying if people offer to help, let them because they don’t know what else to do either.”

Family and friends would send flowers, chocolates and warm meals to Record’s front doorstep to show her their support, she said.

At the beginning of February at the State Farm Center, Record was called center stage by Shauna Green, head coach of women’s basketball, during the game’s halftime. 

On the gym floor, Record was greeted with pink pom poms and smiles by the cheerleaders on the team with signs that read “I Play for Coach Record.” Green handed Record a basketball with the women’s basketball team’s signatures. 

“She does not really expect praises but she endlessly needs them,” Toussaint said. “She gives back so much, and so I know that being in the spotlight for something as difficult as what she’s going through. We had signs for her and we were up there being able to cheer her along and then be able to take that group picture with her and just be there for her.”

Alumni from the varsity cheerleading team have also expressed their support and gratitude towards Record.

“I’ve had cheerleaders from 15, 20 years ago reach out,” Record said. “I’ve had cheerleaders that have come back for Homecoming that just thanking me and telling me ‘Thank you’ and how they hadn’t thanked me for all that.”

Record found the support she received overwhelming in the best possible ways.

“The parents, the families, the cheerleaders themselves,” Record said. “I can’t imagine going through all of this without them being my support network after having supported them for so many years.”

After two surgeries, six weeks of chemotherapy and countless MRIs, Record is now officially cancer-free. However, her journey with cancer is still not over.

“The big stuff is kind of done, but then there’s five years of medication and drugs and things that I also have to go through, so it’s not over-over,” Record said.

Record said cheerleading has always been her passion since high school. Now, with 30 years under her belt in coaching, Record discovered her least favorite part of the cheerleading season is seeing her seniors graduate because of the connections she has created with them.

“Being able to help them grow into the people that they’re meant to be is hugely rewarding, and they are just an incredible group of students, athletes, people, all the above,” Record said. “And I’m just so fortunate to be able to work with them and they give me just as much as I give them.”


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