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College Football, Kicking Cancer's Ass and Friendship: The Best Birthday Ever. (Thanks JB and Arash)

August 27, 2014

by Lisa Horne

 

 

 

Today is my birthday. It also happens to be the first day Football Bowl Subdivision kicks off its season with Georgia State hosting Abilene Christian. In the past, that game would represent the best present I could have received. But ever since May 15 of this year, my perspective has changed.

 

On May 15, my husband David was diagnosed with squamous cell sarcoma. Cancer. The range of emotions I experienced after hearing that word is hard to describe but the best word I can think of is grief. My world was ending because David has always had the worst luck—he wasn't going to beat this cancer because that would be an unusual event, I thought.

 

The whirlwind of doctor visits and consultations lasted two weeks. How do you choose a doctor who is responsible for your husband's life? Not just one doctor, mind you, but numerous doctors. The head and neck specialist. The oncologist. The radiologist. Throw in several phone calls a day to Blue Cross and fielding phone calls from worried friends and family members and my brain was mush.

 

Those televised Cancer Centers of America commercials suddenly brought me to tears. Cancer is everywhere. I never noticed it before. Now it's the guest that won't leave my house. I hate it.

 

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly has the same cancer as David. Kelly's is a little different in that his cancer is in the bones of his jaw. David's cancer is in his tongue and has "traveled" to his lymph nodes, according to a head and neck specialist.

 

Traveled? Isn't that another word for metastasized?

 

Yes, yes it is. David didn't realize his cancer had metastasized until two months after his diagnosis. He too was in a bit of denial. We have since learned that when doctors refrain from using certain words to avoid scaring you, be scared.

 

The doctors also told us not to Google his cancer. So of course, I did. I didn't sleep for a week and when I finally did fall asleep, a lot of crying preceded that. 

 

The unknown was scary. When the game plan finally went into motion, everything got a little better because I saw we were doing something to kill this deadly invader. I wanted that lump in his neck to disappear. 

 

A port-a-cath was surgically inserted into David's chest. The port is little reservoir with a tube attached to it that empties medicine into the superior vena cava, one of the largest veins in your body. The chemotherapy must enter the body via a large vein because it will destroy most vein's walls. The theory is that the bigger the vein, the less contact with the chemo.

 

Chemo started on a Monday and lasted all day. When David was sent home, he had a fanny pack on with a computer inside of it that injected more chemo into his veins every 15 seconds. He had to wear that fanny pack for a week.  On Friday he was done with his first round of chemo and we thought, "Hey, this isn't so bad."

 

Three days later we found out why only five percent of cancer patients can handle this particular chemo cocktail. It is brutal.

 

David shivered on the couch when it was 95 degrees outside. He looked pale. His eyes were sunken. He hadn't eaten in three days. The nausea was horrific although to his credit, he never vomited. His bones hurt. His heart hurt. He was in pain.

 

My husband, an ex-tight end from a Division 1 school, was reduced from the life of the party to nothing but soft moaning. My big, strapping man was losing his hair and his will to continue the chemo. He still had two rounds to go.

 

A blood test the following Monday showed his white count had crashed. Of course it did because that's how chemo works.  It kills every cell in your body and then you are brought back to life with a series of Neupogen shots.

 

My husband cannot watch movies where a needle pierces the human skin—it freaks him out. Yet there he was, self-administering his shots like a pro. He also became proactive on the hair loss. "Don't let this chemo dictate when you lose your hair," I told him.

 

"You're the boss. You decide when you're going bald." That day he shaved his head. Having power or control while fighting an insidious disease is very therapeutic, especially for cancer patients.

 

A week later David rebounded and his white count was back to normal. One round done, two to go. We got this.

 

The second round was awful. David was also complaining about how his shoulder hurt. He didn't get his blood work done because he felt too lousy. He wasn't drinking fluids because he felt too lousy. He just wanted to sleep and be left alone. So I acquiesced and that Wednesday, July 23, I drove up to Hollywood to attend Pac-12 Media Days.

 

Normally, I attend this event with a smile on my face. College football is just around the corner, after all. I was not in a good mood when I arrived at the Paramount Studios lot. I felt disconnected. I was an emotional wreck. Then I spotted an old friend.

 

Arash Markazi appears to be living a charmed life. He always has a beautiful girl on his arm at parties. Some of his assignments at ESPN are what sports fans dream about. Many assume Arash is the typical jet setter who lives in the fast lane—he does get great perks. But Arash has an old soul for such a young person. There isn't a phony bone in his body. And he actually gives a damn about his friends.

 

When Arash saw me and gave me a big hug, he asked how I was doing. My voice started cracking as I tried to maintain my composure. I actually looked up to the sky to control the flow of tears that was starting. He knew something was wrong. And he reached out.

 

He offered some wonderful advice, tea and sympathy. He cared. And I cannot thank him enough.

 

As I recovered from that emotional moment, I heard my name called out. It was from the Pac-12 Network's play-by-play announcer, JB Long. We've known each other for years. One of the nicest guys you'll ever meet on the planet is JB. He's also amazing on camera. His success is a result of his dedication and hard work—he didn't luck into anything.

 

JB is a Notre Dame alum. I'm a Trojan so it's hard to believe we get along so well, right? Maybe it's because we both came from similar backgrounds and have strong ties to our faith and family. In any case, I told him all about David's cancer and once again, I couldn't control my emotions.

 

It had been two months since David's diagnosis and I was still reeling from the rawness of it all.

 

JB gave me a warm hug and assured me he would keep David in his prayers. Some people say that without actually doing it. JB meant it.

 

It occurred to me that our entire conversation had just been about my family. I felt badly and asked JB if he had found the perfect wife. He raised up his left ring finger—the glare of that shiny ring almost blinded me— and informed me he was a newlywed. He looked so happy. I was so thrilled for him.

 

JB had big news to share, yet he held back telling me. He sensed how my needing to talk to someone was a higher priority. How do you thank a friend who does unselfish things like that?

 

Members of the media have at times been portrayed as sharks in a feeding frenzy. Some of that criticism is accurate. Most of it is not. We're just regular people who have jobs that happen to interest a lot of people. We’re far from perfect and just as vulnerable as everyone else. We have the same fears, joys and problems that everyone else has.

 

We hurt just as you do. We lean on our friends as you do.

 

I left before lunch was served because I had a bad feeling about David's health. When I got home, he looked horrible. He hadn't had any shots to bring up his white count and he looked feverish. I yelled at him for not going to the doctor's office to pick up his shots.

 

I spent the night in our guest room because it was closer to the family room where he slept on the couch. He was too weak to go upstairs and sleep in our bed. The next morning his temperature was 102.7.

 

The emergency room is not an ideal place for an oncology patient—especially one with a fever. David was put in an enclosed room to minimize his exposure to all of the nasty germs floating around. His white count was .05. A normal white count is between 12 and 15. The fever represented an infection of unknown origin.

 

The attending physician said if his white count didn't come up quickly, he would not be able to fight the infection. He was dying in front of me.

 

After three days of donning mask, gloves and gown to visit my very sick husband in an isolation room, he rallied. The doctors discovered his port was infected and they removed it—that infected port explained the pain in his shoulder.  A PICC line was put in his arm so that his last round of chemo wouldn't blow up his veins.

 

After David's white count started spiking up, it hit me: it wasn't my husband time yet. Sadly, it also hit me that most of the patients on this floor weren't leaving this hospital alive.

 

How amazing are these nurses to work on a floor with so much despair? They are my heroes.

 

Five days after he was admitted, David was released. He complained about how hot it was.  I got my man back.  

 

By now I had missed all of USC and UCLA's fall practices. In an email to USC's Sports Information Department, I explained why—despite being credentialed to cover USC practices—I had been absent.  

 

Tim Tessalone's response elicited some tears (I know, I'm a mess). His compassion was incredible and his best wishes for Dave's recovery were heartfelt. Tessalone may at times drive some beat reporters crazy, but he also runs a well-oiled machine unlike no other SID. He may not show it, but he cares about a lot of us. 

 

Which brings us to today, my birthday. David asked me what I wanted. I told him he already gave it to me. You see, yesterday David had his post-chemo PET scan. The radiologist couldn't see any cancer. Anywhere.

 

Yeah, let me repeat that.  Anywhere. Top that, people.

 

You can't.

 

This year, like every year, I will be watching at least 30 college football games a week. David will roll his eyes at some of the games I watch but never will those rolling eyes be so beautiful to watch. Those eyes that were once haunting are now sparkling blue with life. That shiny, bald head already has peach fuzz on it. His swag is back.

 

My best friend is kicking cancer's ass.

 

Curt Schilling and Kelly are still battling the disease. Tony Gwynn lost his battle.

 

My husband liked chewing tobacco. So did Gwynn and Schilling. Kelly never touched the stuff. Cancer doesn't care what you did or didn't do. It just shows up and terrorizes you and your family.

 

If you chew or smoke, stop now. Our house has been a tobacco-free house since May 15. David is still going through treatments including a seven-week, five-days-a-week radiation therapy that starts next month. We are carpet-bombing cancer. Just in case.

 

On a day in which the birthday girl usually is the recipient of gifts, I am giving back.

 

Thank you, Arash. Thank you, JB. Thank you, Tim. Thank you, 3rd floor West nurses.

 

You probably didn't even realize how much of an impact your huge hearts have on others. At a time when I felt so alone, so helpless and so scared, you offered up your listening ears, warm hugs and genuine good wishes.

 

I am a rape survivor. I thought I was tough. I am not as tough as I thought I was but because of you all, I am now stronger. 

 

The gift of life is a precious thing. So is friendship. And college football.

 

This has been the best birthday ever.

 

And now, a few words from my husband:

 

 

Living with an opinionated sportswriter can be challenging, especially if that sportswriter happens to be your wife. Surpringly, football and Twitter are key to our happy marriage. Let me explain.

 

I’m a huge sports fan. Football, baseball, basketball and track and field… I like ‘em all. Heck, now that the Kings and Ducks are finally winning Stanley Cups, hockey is growing on me. And fishing shows like “Wicked Tuna.”

 

I’m a huge Laker fan. I can still remember their first championship in L.A. I’ve lived and died with each win and loss for longer than I care to remember.

 

Unfortunately, my wife is a Celtics fan. Guess how much celebrating I did when my beloved Lakers beat the Celtics in the finals of 2010?

 

Unless I wanted to live the remainder of 2010 as a celibate monk… none!

 

I love her. But she's a handful.

 

Those of you who have read @LisaHorne over the past several years already know that everything around her will devolve into a debate! Politics, child rearing, interior decorating, exterior decorating, horticulture and cooking— everything is a debate. It’s what makes her tic.

 

And that my friends, is where you and football come in. You, my football addicted readers, take the pressure off me.

 

The SEC doesn’t play enough difficult non-conference games? She’ll argue it.

 

The Big 10 will not have a team in the four-team playoff. She’ll debate that as well.

 

The Pac-12 has the best quarterbacks in college football. Lisa will list all of the quarterbacks drafted over the last 10 years and argue that until 2:00 a.m!

 

Are you getting the picture? Trust me, ladies and gentlemen, it’s exhausting!

 

So… thanks to football and you, starting this Wednesday, it’s time for “Davey Boy” to take a little vacation. Twitter is now my mini-me. Y'all can argue amongst yourselves, argue with her, rip her for her Heisman candidates and troll her like I know you will.

 

I am good for the next four months. You, my football-addicted friends, take the heat off of me via Twitter.

 

This is how our marriage works so well. She gets her motor running and I just sit back and watch the collateral damage affect everyone. But me.

 

I love football season. I love everything about it.

 

Especially the peace and quiet.

 

See? I told you his swag was back. 

 

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