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PROVO - There are moments during volleyball practice when Amy Schlauder's back throbs and her legs grow weary.
But then she looks down at her wrist to find the strength to push through the pain.
In honor of longtime athletic trainer Gaye Merrill, the BYU women's volleyball team is wearing pink bracelets with "Be Tough" printed on them this season.
Merrill was diagnosed with breast cancer in late April after doctors discovered a lump during a routine mammogram. She is scheduled to undergo a bilateral mastectomy today.
"Gaye is such an inspiration for what being tough really means," said Schlauder, a junior setter. "The bracelets show our support for her, but they also remind us of how much she means to us. What our motto is, Gaye lives every day of her life."
When Merrill, 52, was diagnosed, she sent an e-mail to the volleyball players informing them of her condition. But she never expected the team would change their bracelets from blue to pink this season.
"I was pretty blown away and very touched they felt strongly enough to do that," said Merrill, a BYU graduate who has worked at the school for 26 years. "It is humbling because you want to be a good role model and a good influence on the people you work with. I hope I have been able to be that for them."
Single and never married, Merrill considers the BYU athletes like family. In helping them deal with the emotional tumult of injuries, she becomes close with them and their parents.
She has attended numerous weddings and former athletes call from their hospital beds to tell Merrill about the birth of their children.
"Gaye is like a second mother to me," BYU senior setter Jenna Judkins said. "If she is hurting, I am hurting. I feel like she is a part of us, and I know she will get through this because she is so strong."
Throughout her chemotherapy treatments, Merrill still reported to work every day to help heal the bumps and bruises of the others even though she was low on energy.
"There were days it would have been easier to stay in bed, but the job really has been great for me because it's a motivation to keep trying to live a normal lifestyle," she said. "I watch these girls and what they go through and how they play through pain and injuries every day, and I try to do the same thing."
BYU volleyball coach Jason Watson says having Merrill by his side during practice and games is invaluable.
"Gaye means everything to this program," he said. "There is no way I would be able to do this job without her. I can't even imagine trying. The girls love her, and she takes great care of them."
Merrill has been willing to educate the players about breast cancer if they feel comfortable talking about the subject.
"I never knew how to relate to someone going through this before, and I said to them 'I am the same person that I was three months ago before you guys knew I had this,' " she said. "I still want to know about what is happening with you and your boyfriend and school and all that kind of stuff, and if you want to talk about cancer, that is fine."
Merrill knew she faced increased odds for breast cancer. Her mother and grandmother were diagnosed in their 70s. But if not for her physician reminding her during an annual physical to have a mammogram, Merrill's prognosis may have been worse.
"The lump was so deep, I wouldn't have noticed it otherwise," she said.
Merrill had a lumpectomy on May 7, when doctors discovered her cancer was more widespread and scheduled today's procedure. Although Merrill is a bit scared, she has faith things will work out.
"I have confidence in my doctors," she said. "They told me the cure rate for the characteristics of the tumor I have is about 85 percent at the 10-year follow up. I plan to be in that group."
Like one might expect from a former athlete, Merrill views her battle with breast cancer like a team trying to reach the NCAA Tournament.
"I have an end goal, and my end goal is to be a breast cancer survivor," she said. "There are certain steps you have to go through along the way - some are painful and sometimes you struggle and things don't go the way you planned - but you keep working at it and eventually, hopefully you get there."
* According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 181,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed this year, and 40,910 people will die from it.
* October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and many athletic organizations have rallied around the cause.
* Football officials of nine collegiate conferences, including the Mountain West, have been using pink whistles and NFL officials are wearing pink wristbands and patches.
The bracelets show our support for her, but they also remind us of how much she means to us.
- Amy Schlauder,
BYU junior on the volleyball team wearing pink bracelets to honor Gaye Merrill