Did you ever stare death in the face? Let me tell you it isn’t fun.
On July 19, 2018 I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 53. As most people know, this was a death sentence. As a physician, which I happen to be, I knew it all too well. Only 1% of people with this dreadful disease live more than 5 years after their diagnosis and most die within 18-24 months. So how am I able to write about it a year later? Mostly luck I suppose, but there were many people who were instrumental in helping me get through this and you most likely wouldn’t be reading this without guessing that sports were involved.
Before I go any further I want to make it clear that without the support of my wife Norma, son Tom, and daughter Donna I don’t know if I would have been able to have gotten through it all so far. My family, friends, co-workers, doctors, and nurses all played a huge role in it, too. This story though, isn’t about them. It’s about my passion for sports, keeping a positive attitude, and how someone who barely knew me gave me encouragement, hope and something to look forward to.
Our family had been through some pretty crappy times the previous 8 months. My father-in-law passed away just before Christmas. Our beach house (yes I know I am lucky to have one) was destroyed by a flood from frozen pipes two weeks later. Our dog became ill in late January and had to be put down in April. My turn came when I puked all over my car doing 75 on the NJ Turnpike on May 1st. It took until Memorial Day to get an idea that something serious was wrong as I threw up again and went to the ER for a second time.
My CT scan that day showed that my pancreatic duct was 1 millimeter too big. One millimeter. Do you realize how small that is? Thank god my radiologist wasn’t an MLB umpire who misses strikes when half the ball crosses the plate. They couldn’t see the tumor on the scan. I went for an MRI and still no tumor but it confirmed the size of the abnormal duct. Finally, after 6 weeks, an endoscopy with ultrasound found the mass.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind. Consults at two cancer centers. Life decisions to be made. Treatment options to decide upon. A plan was devised. Last day of work on August 1st. Port placement and chemo starting on August 2nd. Five planned treatments taking me to the end of September, repeat the CT scan, then make more decisions regarding surgery and further chemo. It was going to suck. Four chemo agents, each with its own long list of side effects, once every two weeks. Six hours at the hospital followed by 48 hours at home with the last medication running in. If all went according to plan I would be done with everything in nine short months. Do you know what can happen in nine months? I could have a baby in that time. An entire baseball season, including spring training and the playoffs could be played.
I tried to remain positive, but it was tough. The thought of what was ahead of me was daunting. Nine months of treatments if I lived that long. Nine months of feeling like shit. How was I going to get through it? I decided that I just had to follow the plan. Put my head down and plow through it.
As my wife knows, I relate everything to sports so this was no different. Pitcher was my position when I played baseball and what’s the ultimate thing a pitcher can do? Pitch a perfect game. 9 months. 9 innings. If I were going to survive this I had to pitch the first perfect game of my life. Nothing could go wrong. No bad news could be had. Make the day I found out about the cancer the worst day.
Luckily for me the beginning of August also marked the earnest start of fantasy football season. Yes, many start drafting earlier than that, but baseball is my first love and I can’t start getting into football until training camp starts. I wondered if I was going to be up to drafting in my 4 usual leagues.
Would I live through the season? Imagine being in my leagues and know that I may kick the bucket in the middle of it. I’m commissioner in two of them. They might have to hire a lawyer to get the money from my wife!
Yes, I was thinking about fantasy football. How crazy was that? You know what? It’s what made the days go by. I immersed myself in it. I listened to John Hansen on SiriusXM in the morning, followed by Jeff Erickson, followed by Jeff Mans, and then the guy who I alluded to earlier. The guy who kind of knew me. The guy who called me “my friend Andy” on his show two years earlier because I nicknamed Sammie Coates “Hands of Buttered Stone” while doing a mock draft with him. My man, the Rotobuzzguy, Howard Bender.
Howard for some reason thought that was the bomb. He talked about it on his show several times during the preseason whenever the Steelers came up. We started a dialogue on twitter and became friends. I was able to make it to Foley’s bar in NYC the night before Tout Wars in 2018 to meet him.
When I told Howard about the cancer he was great. He offered encouragement. He made me laugh. He asked if there was anything he could do (yeah, most people say that lol), but what he did next was something that was unexpected.
He told me that if I got through this, he wanted me to go to Tout Wars with him and draft his team for him.
He knew my passion was auction drafts and that year he had been in the mixed league auction so it was a perfect fit for me. Having played for 28 years, I thought I could at least compete with the experts and now I might have the chance. This was unsolicited and really tells you something about him.
There were many things I had to look forward to -many far more important than a fantasy baseball auction – that gave me a reason to keep going. My daughter’s graduation in May was the most immediate one. Of course I couldn’t imagine missing any of the life events that we were planning on enjoying, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that draft. I printed out the results of the auction from March to get an idea of what the pricing had been and tried to glean what strategy was employed by everyone.
What also kept me going that month was preparing for my fantasy football drafts. I needed to keep busy and this was helping. The problem was that I had too much time on my hands. I ended up with a total of 10 teams by the time opening day rolled around. The chemo did it’s job on me and that probably kept the number lower than it could have been.
Howard kept in touch. Always asking how I was doing. Always there to offer advice when I asked. He sent out a tweet wishing me luck and I heard from many of his followers who wished me well. The fantasy community’s support was unreal.
On October 1st I had my next CT scan and things looked good. The tumor did get smaller and I was tolerating the chemo. The surgeon decided that it was time to operate. I was so glad to get this thing out of me. It’s disturbing to know that you have a cancer in you and they don’t want to take it out right away. The surgery was scheduled for November 5th, a Monday. My crazy mind was happy it was a Monday because I knew I’d be able to get my lineups in and that I would probably be ok by Thursday to get ready for the next week.
The surgery took 8 hours. I messaged Howard from the ICU while watching an awful Monday Night Football game between the Cowboys and Titans. He was amazed that I was coherent enough to send a message so soon after the surgery. I was too, honestly. So far 3 innings of perfection and this was the beginning of the 4th. I was discharged on Saturday with the nurses telling me they have never seen anyone do so well after that surgery. Well I would hope so since most people who have it are in their 70s and 80s!!! On the way home I developed double vision. It was a scare, but after an MRI it was deemed to be something that would resolve in a few weeks but I would have to wear an eye patch until it did.
Howard didn’t stop with the pirate jokes.
More good news came in the 4th inning (November). The pathology report came back and said that all the cancer was removed and that there was no spread to any of the lymph nodes. My CA19-9, the tumor marker for pancreatic cancer, had returned to normal as well. This was my immaculate inning: 3 strikeouts on 9 pitches!
While recovering from the surgery a few weeks later, I saw an “ad” on twitter from FantasyAssembly.com looking for writers. The best part about the ad was it said no experience necessary. I always enjoyed writing, but never did anything seriously. I figured what the heck and sent a note explaining my 28 years of experience playing and that I had an interest in auctions. Jim Finch, who runs the site, must have felt sorry for me and agreed to let me write about auctions and whatever else I could come up with. As fantasy football season was coming to a close, I needed something else to keep my mind off of the upcoming chemo and this was it.
The chemo hit bad this time. The side effects were much worse than previously. We weren’t sure if it was because I was weaker from the surgery, but it knocked me for a loop for a week. I would lay on the couch nauseated and think about what I could write about. When I finally felt better, I would write as much as I could before the next round.
Howard again played a role as he read a few of my articles and gave me suggestions that helped tremendously. I asked about what was going on with Tout and he said he was going to ask them soon if I could attend the draft. Now in the 6th inning, it was getting rough with the side effects of the chemo, but the writing and getting prepared for my drafts kept my mind off of them. It was my outlet from the dreary days of winter that were a bit more dreary this year.
My first article was titled “Brad Ausmus for a Buck”. The title was a tribute to a member of my long running league who had passed away just before the draft in 2017. I continued to write at least one and sometimes two articles a week while I was between cycles during January and February. To be able to continue to focus on something other than what I was going through was a blessing. I really believe this helped me get through it and make it seem that it wasn’t so bad. It was bad in reality. The chemo made me so sick this time that I wanted it to stop after the 2nd treatment in late January. I had just spent a week in bed and the thought of doing that again was just not something I felt I could do. When I discussed this with my wife and oncologist they were both adamant that I finish up the treatments even though there was no proof that continuing the chemo was beneficial. The oncologist agreed to reduce the dose a bit hoping that it would decrease the side effects, so I gave it a shot.
It did help. As did my application to play in The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational getting accepted. For those who don’t know it is a league for fantasy baseball “experts” and Justin Mason, who started the league, was kind enough to let me play despite my “strong” resume of a single article at the time. This was just another good thing that happened to me and kept me going.
Howard continued to support me by looking at an occasional article that I would have questions about. I know he was busy with a packed schedule, but he always offered his help. He wasn’t receiving a positive response from Tout Wars about my inclusion, so I told him not to worry about it and that I appreciated his effort to include me. Just the thought that I was going to do it was enough to help.
When Howard was in Arizona for the LABR draft, he had the honor of calling out the first name for bid in his auction as he was the defending champ. He asked me who he should call out first and my response of Trea Turner was right in line with his thinking. Then live on SiriusXM, Howard gives me a shout out before he announces his pick as I was to have my last treatment in two days. This was a great way to start my 8th inning.
On March 4th I received my last treatment and “rang the bell”. 48 hours later I disconnected the last infusion and was done with treatments. The rest of March was for recovery. My wife and I went to Florida and watched a few Mets spring training games. I was able to meet Howard at Foleys again the night before Tout. I also met other members of the fantasy community including Justin Mason, Alex Fast, Nick Pollack, Larry Schecter and others. We then went to Hawaii to really get away from it all and relax. My wife deserved it more than I did. 8 innings down one to go. Three outs away from that perfect game.
On April 9th I had another CT scan and blood work.
The next 48 hours were more anxiety producing than any I can remember. It was like the bench during the game when a perfecto was being hurled. No one spoke about it. We went to the oncologist on the 11th with pits in our stomachs. Sitting there in the room waiting for her to come in was like waiting for the jury foreman to read the verdict except it was “Live or Die” rather than “Guilty or Not Guilty”. Knowing that we were waiting anxiously, as soon as she entered the room she stated that everything was good. Tumor marker was normal and no evidence of any tumors on the scan. “Put it in the Books!!!” as Howie Rose would say. My nine months of treatment were over and it was perfect.
I understood that it wasn’t really over. It never is as a cancer patient. There will be anxiety producing scans and blood work every three months for two years extending to every 6 months for the following 3 years. Pancreatic cancer can rear its ugly head even though it seems to be gone. There’s about a 60-70% chance it comes back so I’m not out of the woods yet. All I can do is, after each negative scan, look forward to the next three months in the short term.
There are so many ways to look at what happened to me and try to explain why I got through it the way I did. The support of my wife, kids, family and friends kept me smiling as I knew I had the best defense behind me, but I can’t discount what these other things did for me. Being able to use fantasy sports as a diversion in so many different ways from playing in ten football leagues, writing about fantasy baseball auctions, playing in an “expert” league, and having a friend in the industry who supported me, helped more than you can imagine. As a doctor who relies on medications to treat patients, it was a lesson learned. A Positive attitude and having something else to help keep your mind off of the struggles were invaluable in getting through it all.
No one can get through cancer alone. Anything you can do will help that person get through the day. A text, A call. A card. A visit. I hope this story instills that it’s not only the medicine and surgery that made me better. If writing this inspires one person to help one other person, I’ve done something good.