Dan's Story "Surviving versus Thriving"

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. “

Life has seminal moments; times that define the essence of who we are. They reveal our character and reshape our futures. They will not yield. They demand we stop and learn, despite our schedules or desire to do so.

Part of my job is to broadcast for the Kansas City Chiefs Football Club.  Working in the NFL has its perks, but can be very demanding at times.  The schedule is unforgiving to family moments, holidays or any kind of personal events, including health related ones.

As the Executive Producer for The Chiefs Radio Network, each week I’m responsible to assemble and host one of the largest and highest rated pregame shows in the National Football League. It's work I’m proud of.  It's work I enjoy.   

As part of that role, I spend 2 ½ weeks at training camp with the club each year.  It’s really a way of getting a jump-start on the season through immersion.  Camp is basically a two and half week long football practice.  You stay in a dorm room and eat every meal in a cafeteria.

As camp opened, I sat and listened to the 26 year old Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl Safety Eric Berry discuss his return to the NFL and Kansas City Chiefs after a successful battle against cancer.  At the time it was inspiring but not personally relevant.   I was in good health.  I wasn’t overweight, and had good strength. I ate fairly clean, and was generally in good shape for my age.  Or so I thought…   

As training camp proceeded, I crossed paths with a longtime friend and my personal physician, team doctor Mike Monaco.  I mentioned to Mike I was having some slight abdominal pain.  I believed it might be an ulcer.  But I was unable to correlate the pain with certain foods or stressors.   After an examination, Mike suggested getting some base line tests based on my age of 50 plus.  The truth was, he suspected worse.   

I was progressing through the battery of tests, when I had come to the upper GI and colonoscopy.  Before the procedure started, I was joking with the nurses.  I was telling everyone interested how the Chiefs were going to be 11-5 that season after witnessing a perfect 4-0 preseason.   When I awoke, the mood was far less jovial.  I remember a nurse saying, “Get the doctor, he is awake.”  It was the first of several moments where life took the opportunity to reorient my perspective.

I’m unaware of an age wherein a doctor can use the words “cancer” that would not shock an individual.  But I can tell you that age is not fifty-years-old.   Cancer is a scary word! The thoughts it conjures are irrepressible. Every moment can be a struggle to just hold your ground. Perspective becomes a major defense mechanism.  

But as I discovered, it is not the only one.  I was so overwhelmed by everyone's love and support. It gave me strength beyond reason - beyond understanding.  And while I would not have chosen this path, I learned and am learning from the experience.

Within a few days the mass was indeed confirmed as cancerous and the whirlwind of medical decisions were matched only by the flurry of emotions.  I’d just had the rug pulled out from under me.  From that moment, everything seemed to slip into high gear.  Talk of immediate surgeries, with surgeons I had never met.  And all of this, with complete disregard to my personal schedule, let alone the NFL’s schedule.   

It’s a bit disconcerting to constantly rely on relative strangers when trying to make lifesaving decisions at a breakneck speed.  There is so much information to assimilate - so many questions without answers.

The tumor was discovered on a Thursday. The Chiefs Season Opener was just three days later in Houston against the Texans.  I can’t begin to describe the intensity of emotions and internal conflict that I felt.  Needless to say, sleep became a rare commodity.

My son was working for the then St. Louis, now Los Angeles Rams.  My daughter was at college some 400 miles away.  Telling both of them over the phone was painful for everyone.  Life had just reoriented their perspective as well.  

The earliest surgery could be performed was the following week.  This enabled me to make the trip to the Chiefs Season Opener in Houston.  Traveling with an NFL team is an extraordinary opportunity.  For some of our crew we have been together for more than two decades.  They are practically family.  We rely on one another so heavily that the slightest disruption feels like a boat that has been capsized.

I called the crew to my hotel room in Houston the night before the game.  I began to disclose that we would shift into our backup plan for the first game.  My assistant producer would produce, the audio assistant would shift to the assistant producer role, and I…would just be watching.  The entire room looked perplexed and curious.

“I have been diagnosed with Colon Cancer,” I said.  The room was silent.  I could see the curiosity turn to stress and concern.  Some were positive and encouraging, some begin to cry.  Everyone’s perspective was shifting.   

Just one week later, surgery would end my 27 year streak of 512 consecutive NFL games.  Because my surgery had gone well, I expected to hear my doctor discharged me, saying, “You are cancer free!”  But life would again demand attention, as what she actually said was “Could we clear the room.”  The cancer had metastasized and was staged between IIIC & Stage IV.  Ultimately, a clean high contrast scan would rule my cancer at Stage IIIC.  While good news, it still meant an additional surgery for a Port-A-Cath, and chemotherapy protocols.

I’ve always considered myself a strong individual.  But the Chemotherapy regimen of Fulfox-6 every 2 weeks served to be a formidable opponent.  Having never been truly sick, I struggled mightily with each round, both physically and mentally.  Many of the rounds had dark mental valleys that left me thinking I wouldn’t continue with chemotherapy.  But as my body began to recover the second week of each round, I would commit only to the next round.  Living day to day is not easy for a type A personality and required learning and a mental discipline I was not used to.

I suddenly understood Eric Berry’s words, “Some days it was all I could do to get out of bed.” That statement became a goal for me at the worst of times.

As I write this, I have finished the Chemotherapy protocols and have started recovery from all the chemistry.  At the end of chemo they perform a High Contrast CT Scan.  As I understand this, the purpose of this scan is mostly to provide a baseline for future scans.  But it also has the added benefit of providing a look into the effectiveness of the chemotherapy protocols.  And while a clear scan was expected, the thought of “what if chemo didn’t work” was hard to repress.

I sat two days later waiting for the Doctor to enter the room with the results.  Times like these weigh greatly.  The entire medical process is filled with moments that test your resolve.  They isolate you mentally and leave you feeling lonely despite how many others are by your side. And the truth is, it is very hard to stay positive continuously.  Distractions become a type of pain relief.  And time, the very thing you are fighting for, almost becomes an enemy. I learned to be content with surviving versus thriving.  I realize how difficult this is, but I believe it’s a very important facet for mentally enduring this time.  

“Your scans are clear!”  I had survived a grueling six months of chemotherapy and it suddenly felt relief! For the first time in nine months, I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.   

As this phase ends happily, another of waiting begins.  It is still very hard to deal with uncertainty.  But the reality is few things in our lives are certain.  And not taking EACH GOOD day for granted is an important lesson to learn in this process.

The NFL teaches players “one play at a time!”   A cancer diagnosis isn’t the final whistle.  We take each day at a time.  With the support of family, friends, and other survivors, we run the football across each yard till we find the end zone.   

Cancer IS a scary word…but it’s just a word.  How we react to that word defines who we are.  Tape your ankles and run that ball across the line.  One yard at a time.  One play at a time.  One day at a time.  Use every weapon you can discover.

Yes my outcome is still uncertain.  But each good day is a great day!

And for the record, Eric Berry and the Kansas City Chiefs would complete the 2015 season as predicted at 11-5.  Ironically, the Chiefs would return to Houston where the season AND my cancer journey began, winning their first playoff game in 22 years.  I was there for that moment. And God willing, I plan on being there for the next playoff win.

Colon and rectal cancers (colorectal cancer) are the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in this country. But, it's a preventable disease. Over 60 percent of deaths could be avoided with screening. Dan's story shows that anyone can get colorectal cancer, at any age. Guidelines recommend that screening for colorectal cancer begin at age 50. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer and/or polyps, signs or symptoms of the disease, or other risk factors you may need screened sooner. To learn more about colorectal cancer, please visit the advocacy organization Fight Colorectal Cancer at FightCRC.org. This Seven Billion Ones story is being added to Fight Colorectal Cancer's awareness campaign, the One Million Strong Collection. To view the collection and see other colorectal cancer survivor stories, visit OMScollection.org.