UPDATE APRIL 15: Duke Fencing and DCI partnered this 2020 season in a Fence for the Fight campaign in honor of breast cancer survivor Elizabeth Beguinet, the beloved director of administration and recruiting @DukeFen. With 1,215 wins this season plus pledging, $30,144.55 was raised.
In September 2016, beloved long-time director of administration and recruiting for Duke Fencing, Elizabeth Beguinet, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly thereafter, she learned that the cancer had spread to her bones.
Shock, and no small amount of fear, rippled through her tight knit family — from her husband, Duke Fencing head coach Alex Beguinet, to their daughter Heather, a Duke alum, to Elizabeth’s sisters and extended family — all of them recognizing that, with stage 4 cancer, she was in the bout of her life.
Scans scheduled ahead of her first chemotherapy treatment revealed several metastases in her hip (in the ilia of the pelvis) and on her spine, which spurred Elizabeth’s oncologist Kimberly Blackwell, MD, to revise the original chemotherapy drugs to ones more in line with the now stage 4 diagnosis.
Two days after her first chemotherapy, Elizabeth and her daughter flew to Hawaii for a long-planned vacation to Hawaii with her sisters. Warned that the chemotherapy would cause her to lose her waist-long hair, she cut it to shoulder-length before the trip. While there, it began falling out.
Elizabeth and Alex waited several weeks — until the fencing season was over — to tell colleagues and the fencing program students and parents about Elizabeth’s cancer. When they did go public with the news, they were touched by a flood of cards, e-mails and phone calls of support.
After a year of chemotherapy, the sudden growth of one of the tumors necessitated a revised plan to include lumpectomies and removal of several nearby lymph nodes, followed by six weeks of radiation to the lumpectomy and node-removal sites.
Some of the student-athletes came to sit with her during intravenous chemotherapy treatments — the roles temporarily reversed for the “team mom,” as they called her, who was so accustomed to being their cheerleader and shoulder to cry on.
A special video tribute created for Duke Athletics at the end of 2017 — The Spirit of Beguinet — had Elizabeth tearfully reliving her first year of treatment, with Alex by her side. Alex said, proudly, that she “took the bull by the horns.” He admired her strength and positivity. He couldn’t be sure that he’d have handled it quite the same if cancer had happened to him.
Where did the time go?
Elizabeth Beguinet was born in Winnipeg, Canada, north of the Dakotas. Her parents, both originally from Holland, moved the family west to Portland, Oregon, when she was sixteen.
While in her mid-20s, she made a life-changing decision. She enrolled at Mt Hood College in Portland and selected fencing as her PE class. The school’s fencing team coach, Alex Beguinet, from Toulouse, France, was the instructor. They were about the same age, had much in common with their European backgrounds, and they hit it off.
When the semester was over, they started dating. In 1983, they married. Two years later, Alex was recruited to coach fencing at Duke University. Before Elizabeth could complete her degree, they were headed cross-country with their daughter.
Elizabeth had been a volunteer program manager for the Duke Fencing team from the start. Still staying involved with the program, Elizabeth earned her Bachelor’s degree in 2002, in Interdisciplinary Studies (Mathematics, Sociology and Women Studies) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a part time college student over ten years. Once she had earned her degree, she was able to devote all of her time as volunteer manager with Duke Fencing.
Career highlights included serving, in 1991, as a manager at the Olympic Festival in Los Angeles, being team co-manager for the 2006 Junior/Cadet World Championship Team in Taebaek, Korea, and being team co-manager for the 2006 Senior World Championships in Turin, Italy.
A New Year
The sun is flooding through the window of Infusion Room 50 on the fourth floor of Duke Cancer Center Durham. It’s mid-afternoon on Wednesday, January 8, 2020.
“Cancer,” explains Elizabeth, “is just the thing I have, the thing I live with.”
She’s managed to work her infusions (every 21 days) into her busy schedule of recruiting trips, competitions and team functions.
Her hair has grown back to shoulder-length since that 2017 video.
“I just had a haircut recently and this could actually be the same dress that I was wearing in that video interview; that would be very funny,” she says, happily agreeing to have a new photo taken.
As what Elizabeth calls her “beloved poisons” cycle through her veins, she speaks frankly about what she calls her “chronic disease.”
She recounts how last August several new tumors appeared on her spine. Radiation therapy quickly took care of it. But an insurance glitch left her with no follow-on treatment at all for three-months.
“During those months, I was scared to death,” Elizabeth shares. “I didn’t know what the November scans were going to show. That was hard. To just keep living… It was overwhelming.”
Adding to the stress, she traveled back and forth twice to the west coast to help her sister after a death in the family.
In November, she was relieved to learn, thanks to “a little bit of luck,” that there was no active cancer anywhere. She resumed treatment. The holidays, spent with family, were quiet.
“We’d just had a loss and everybody was wondering (aloud), “Are you next?”” says Elizabeth. “And I said, “Could be, could be, love me while you got me.””
Beguinet says that fencing skills are good life skills and good coping-with-cancer skills.
“Be in the moment. If your opponent beats you and you are coming off the strip, you can’t dwell on that loss because that next opponent is waiting for you,” she says. “And if you come in wearing the defeat that you just encountered, then you are coming in defeated. You just have to experience what happened, process it, then let it go because in that next moment, you have to be there and be ready to go… especially when you’re in the midst of the fight. From one day to the next, there’s always some new thing that’s being presented to you.”
There’s a sign at the gym that reads “Keep Calm and Parry On.”
“Parry” is a fencing blade-work maneuver intended to deflect or block an incoming attack. If the next incoming is another tumor, she, her family, her Duke oncologist, Paul Kelly Marcom, MD, and her fencing students will do their best to parry on.
Elizabeth’s fencing students are asking donors to partner with the team and Duke Cancer Institute to Fence4TheFight against breast cancer in Elizabeth's honor. Duke seniors Eoin Grooningsater (captain of the men's fencing team) and Lindsay Sapienza (captain of the women's fencing team) co-founded the fundraiser.
"She's not just our recruiting coordinator, or travel coordinator, or seamstress for our uniforms," said Grooningsater. "She’s been our confidant, our coach, our on-campus mom, and our family for 35 years. And when a member of our family fights, we all fight."
Donors can pledge either $0.10, $0.25, $0.50, $1.00, $1.75, $2.50 (or choose to pledge another amount) for every win (point) a team member gets over the year. Team members won 952 bouts last year. For several decades the Duke Fencing program has finished at the NCAAs in the top 10 and has even fielded Olympians.
Donors can also opt to make a one-time donation of any amount. Pledges will be totaled at the end of the season and donors will be notified by Duke Cancer Development to make their payments. All money raised goes directly to the Duke Cancer Institute (DCI) and is fully tax deductible. Donors will receive a receipt from the DCI.
The donor with the most raised will receive a Duke Fencing prize package in honor of their support. All donors will receive an autographed picture of this year’s team. For Duke Fencing alums, the team will track pledges by graduation class. The graduation class with the highest donation total will be honored with a plaque prominently placed in the fencing gym.
Fence4TheFight Against Breast Cancer
Elizabeth and Alex Beguinet's fencing students are asking donors to partner with the team and Duke Cancer Institute to Fence4TheFight against breast cancer in Elizabeth's honor.
Donors can pledge either $0.10, $0.25, $0.50, $1.00, $1.75, $2.50 (or choose to pledge another amount) for every win (point) a team member gets over the season.