The curveball I wasn’t ready for

Editor’s Note: Interview and transcription by Vanessa Hughes. This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

I’m a big believer that baseball prepares you for a lot of life’s lessons, but for this, it didn’t. I was not prepared.

***

Monday, November 28, 2016

The doctor comes into the room and says, “I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m not that kind of doctor. We’re just going to shoot you straight.

“YOU HAVE TESTICULAR CANCER.”

When he said that, I just shut down.

It wasn’t like I heard “testicular cancer.” I just heard CANCER. You never think that cancer can happen to you, whether you’re a healthy baseball player or just an average person.

I started to tear up. My mom cried. I could tell my dad was trying not to. My wife, Kristina, was looking at me like, “It’s gonna be okay. We’ll get through it.”

It was hard for me, but it was harder that my parents had to be there. I love my parents and they’re very strong, but I feel like you never want to hear that your kid has something like this. We were all in shock. It’s hard to put into words.

The doctor told us what the next steps were. Surgery first, then worry about chemo or radiation later.

I’m thinking, “When can we get surgery? When can we get this out of me? How fast can we speed this process up? Because now that we know what it is, I want this out of my body as fast as possible.” Then, “What does chemo or radiation look like? How far does that set me back? Am I going to be ready for the season?”

At that point, baseball was all the way on the backburner.

He comes back into the office while we were discussing how to go about this and says, “I actually have an opening tomorrow. One of my patients just canceled and tomorrow is my surgery day, so I have an opening.”

I said, “I want surgery.”

I feel like it was a very big blessing that, for whatever reason, his schedule opened up and that was my in.

Emotions were still in the room and my dad said, “Let’s try and get a second opinion.” I told him, “I don’t want a second opinion. Let’s get surgery and then we can get a second opinion if we need one. I have this in me, and I want it out.”

We scheduled surgery for the very next day.

I didn’t sleep much that night. I had gone through some surgeries – my meniscus tear, had my tonsils taken out – very minor stuff. There wasn’t very much sleeping going on throughout our whole house. A lot of praying with the optimism of “keep moving forward and good things will come.”

***

One night at home back in November I was taking a shower, and I checked and actually felt a little lump. Initially, my thought process was, “What is this? This doesn’t feel right.” It wasn’t that I was fatigued or in any pain, nothing felt different. It felt like a lump of rice and it was hard. I didn’t think too much about it, but I knew it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be there. My wife had gone to bed already, so I was looking stuff up on my phone and what it could possibly be.

Many different things pop up when you google “a lump on a testicle.” One of them was cancer. I thought, “We’re gonna count that out and lean toward some of the other things.”

The more I dug into it, the more it seemed like, “Hmmm… this is kind of interesting.” If I don’t say something about it and it is possibly cancer, what does that look like? I gave myself the ultimatum that if I find it again in the exact same spot in the morning then I need to notify somebody. I found it again in the morning, actually while I was working out in the offseason down at Salt River Fields, our training facility in Scottsdale, and told our trainer, “This is kind of awkward, it’s something that I felt and just to be on the safe side, let’s start the process of figuring out what it could possibly be.” He scheduled a doctor appointment for me and we would go from there.

Kristina and I went see Dr. Hill, who’s just 15 minutes away from the complex. He said, “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s this vein that gets enlarged or swollen. It goes away after awhile, but it is a little bit odd, so let’s get you an ultrasound.”

I thought it was normal procedure, which it is. Throughout this whole process, there was never a sign of fatigue and I wasn’t in any pain.

A couple days later Dr. Hill calls me and says the results are “undeterminable.”

“We’re still leaning towards this vein that’s swollen,” he said, “but let’s go ahead and get blood work done.”

Still, at this point, I’d never begun thinking that it was cancer. We get the blood work back and he said he’s going to send me to a urologist in Phoenix, Dr. Shapiro.

“Sit down with him and he’ll talk you through your blood work and we’ll go from there,” Dr. Hill said.

“This is a little different,” I thought.

We went from the original procedures to now we’re meeting with a urologist? That’s kind of when it started creeping in. What is possibly going on here?

***

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When I woke up that day – the day my surgery was scheduled – I did feel like there was some peace there. I know this is going to be out of me today. Let’s do this. Let’s get through this. Let’s take care of it today and then worry about it tomorrow.

Surgery was in the morning, which was nice. If it was in the afternoon, the more time I had to think about it, the more shaken up I would’ve been. My family, my agent and my wife were all there.

I wasn’t really worried too much. There was some clarity and calmness, knowing that this was going to be out of me and knowing that my wife and I and our families were going to be okay.

I think I got out around 3 p.m. I knew that I was going to be able to go home the same day, which was really nice. The doctor comes out, tells everyone that the surgery went very well and that I should be waking up in 30-45 minutes. As long as I can put my shoes on, they can take me home. A couple of hours go by and I’m still sleeping because of the anesthesia.

I didn’t feel any pain from the surgery itself, but it hurt to sneeze or cough because they had to go through my abdominal wall.

When I woke up, I remember saying, “All right, let’s go home.” The nurse says, “You need to put your shoes on first.”

“Why can’t you put them on for me?” I asked.

I was still a little loopy. You have to put your shoes on so they know that you can walk out. I finally got my shoes on. I just wanted to get home and be a bum on the couch.

After surgery, Dr. Shapiro said I couldn’t do anything for two weeks. That’s not terrible. Two weeks is nothing. But then we started thinking, “Oh crap, when does the chemo happen?” Now we’re timelining it, and time is running out.

This whole thing, it’s changed my perspective on everything. When I got hurt in 2012 it changed my perspective on baseball. This changed my perspective on life. It’s strictly enjoying every day. It’s something that you don’t necessarily think about, taking it a day at a time. Now, it’s “Let’s enjoy today and we’ll worry about tomorrow when that happens.”

After two weeks we started slowly getting back into it, doing some mobility work. Nothing strenuous, but I felt really good. Everybody did a good job of holding me back and making sure that I didn’t get a hernia, which is very common when you come back from a procedure like this. I finally got into swimming pool work for week three and then ran through a program that gets you back into playing shape. If you have any pain at all, you’re not allowed to move forward. Working with the trainers, they said, “If you want to work out, work out very lightly. Don’t get crazy.” What exactly does that mean? Don’t go out and throw 120 feet? But I can throw 90? “If you want to get your arm moving a little bit, you can,” they said, but they harped on making sure that I eased back into everything. Then, after the holidays, I was to come back to see where I was at.

Our oncologist, Dr. Gordon, said typically after surgery people go through a round of radiation or chemo. I’d known this going into surgery, but we didn’t know what that looked like. Was it going to be a cycle of chemo? Three cycles? There were a lot of unknowns. I already had it in my mind that I was going to have to go through something like this. I’ve always tried to move forward through stuff instead of slowing stuff down. But at that point in time it was, “How long is it going to take? When can I get back on the field? When can I start throwing again?”

A couple weeks had gone by and we met with Dr. Gordon. He had given us the news that I wouldn’t necessarily have to go through chemo or radiation if I wanted to be proactive in getting regular checkups, CT scans, blood work and meeting with him.

Me to Dr. Gordon: “So you’re telling me right now that I don’t have to go through chemo or radiation?”

Dr. Gordon: “As of this point, no.”

Me: “Excuse me? I don’t have to go through this? I can get checkups regularly? I can do this! Sign me up!”

We didn’t know if I was going to be able to go to Texas for Christmas. Kristina and I go to Texas to see my parents there, and then fly up to see her parents in Michigan for New Year’s. We were trying to figure all that out and see if we needed to switch our plans, and he lets me know that we didn’t have to go through chemo/radiation, which was a whole other burden off my shoulders. A sigh of relief for sure!

A week after my surgery, I was going to get blood work done. Dr. Gordon was saying that my tumor markers had dropped increasingly and were almost non-detectable. He said, “I don’t want to get your hopes up. Sometimes they come down before they go back up.”

Our hopes weren’t going to get too high.

Two more weeks go by and another round of blood work.

***

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Okay, this is kind of it. This test is going to be the one that determines what the rest of my offseason looks like and whether I have to go through chemo or radiation. We’re hanging by a thread. We’re sitting there waiting for a call. They didn’t have the results back yet.

“I have plans for Christmas and New Year’s. Can we figure this out when we get back?” I asked.

He said he would call me as soon as he got my results.

***

Thursday, December 22, 2016

We bumped our plans back a little bit to go to Texas. Kristina was going to fly out on the 22nd because she’s pregnant, which is a whole other blessing, and she didn’t want to sit in the car from Arizona to Texas. I didn’t want her to, either. I was on my way driving and was almost to El Paso when I got the call. I had stopped to get gas and Dr. Gordon calls and says, “YOUR TUMOR MARKERS ARE UNDETECTABLE. Meaning as of now, you are CANCER FREE!”

What!? Why am I by myself? Holy cow! Who do I call? I called my wife first. She called her parents. I called my parents, my agent, the front office, Jeff Bridich, Bud Black, Steve Foster, Darren Holmes – everybody that had known what I was going through. I told them what the deal was and the good news.

Oh my gosh! What a Christmas present! It was one of the happiest days of my life!

***

The appointments now are every six weeks with Dr. Gordon, the oncologist – get a CT scan, get blood work, meet with him. It’s like hanging by a thread, still, because you don’t want it to spread. You want everything to be normal. You don’t want your blood work to spike, and that’s always in question now that I’ve gone through something like this. You want to make sure that it’s non-detectable.

It’s funny; for those six weeks it’s like normal life. And then you go to your CT scan and meet with the doctor. I joke around about it a little bit, but I’ll give blood every six weeks for the rest of my life just to make sure that everything is normal.

***

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Even today, the tumor markers are still non-detectable, which is perfect. The blood work came back good and that’s usually what you hang your hat on. The CT scan showed some growth in my lymph nodes, though, and one actually doubled in size. It’s kind of odd that the tumor marker levels were undetectable, but the lymph nodes grew.

It was in question whether or not we want to biopsy it or wait and see what the next scan looks like. Dr. Gordon was suggesting we biopsy it.

***

Thursday, March 2, 2017 

We decided we were all on board for a biopsy. I knew there was a chance it could be cancer. If you dig for stuff, you’re going to find something, but I didn’t necessarily think that it was going to be cancer. That’s not where my mindset was at that point in time. The nice thing was, the doctor that performed the biopsy on the lymph node let us know that after I woke up we would have a preliminary result. We come out of the procedure and she lets us know that there are malignant cells, which you have to assume are cancerous. I was loopy because I was still under anesthesia.

“Ok, I don’t know what that means. We’ll figure that out when I wake up more.”

Over the course of four days, Friday through Monday, my wife and I and everybody decide we need to get prepared. We need to know what exactly it is and why it’s not showing up in the blood. What’s the next step? How do we do it? Does this affect the baby? What can you do and not do? You’re prepared for the worst.

***

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Dr. Gordon let us know that it’s the same cancer that was found in my testes. It’s unfortunate and it sucks, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. This is in front of me, there’s a challenge ahead and we have a plan, which is really nice, because I feel like I’m really plan-oriented when it comes to trying to figure stuff out and how to execute it.

It’s frustrating because there were two months there where you think, “I don’t have to go through anything” and “everything’s going to be all right” and “I’ll just give blood work all the time.” And then it comes back, and it’s non-detectable in your blood but evident through CT scans. But I feel like if we weren’t proactive, there’s no way we would have found this. If it would have been way later down the road when we found it, then who knows what that might have looked like?

This wasn’t what I wanted, obviously, but there was a point in time when we thought we might have to do this anyway. This is a rollercoaster, but if it was never in our heads I think the reaction would be completely different. Typically, you see surgery and then a round of chemo. So you prepare for that and then you find out you don’t have to do it and you’re like, “What? This is great news!” Then it comes back two months later that you have to do it, it’s like, “Crap. This sucks.” But at the same time, you’re prepared.

For us, we have a plan moving forward. Let’s go. Let’s get started.

***

I will have surgery to insert a port into my chest on Wednesday, March 15 to get the chemo delivered that way. It’s like a regular IV, but it’s actually a port. It will be under my left collarbone. Typically it’s on the right side, but we asked if it would be different or cause more complications if it was on the left side and it won’t. I have a pulmonary function test first to check my lungs and then the port is inserted right after that. On Friday, March 17 we’ll have a follow-up and a baseline blood test.

Chemo starts on Monday, March 20. Three cycles at three weeks each. Nine weeks total.

It’s scary. This is serious for me. It’s nine weeks of chemo, but if I want this gone, this is what I have to do. I don’t want to have to keep dealing with this.

Some people say your first cycle is the hardest, then it gets easier. Some people say you’re going to feel like nothing happened in the first cycle. For me, I’d rather have it be easier first and then harder. But I don’t get to pick that.

There are a lot of side effects, but hair loss, nausea and vomiting are the ones that everybody associates with chemo.

The hair loss, I honestly don’t care about. It was funny, we were talking with my parents the other day and my mom said, “are you going to lose your hair?”

I said, “I don’t care if I lose my hair, as long as this cancer is OUT!”

The chemo is actually at Dr. Gordon’s office, which is really awesome. It’s considered outpatient, so you’re only there for so many hours and then you can go home.

Everybody’s different in how they respond to it. They’re under the impression that I’ll still be able to do stuff. That’s where my mindset is. I’ll still be able to come up to the complex and throw and/or maybe work out. I think the hard part is that there’s no real plan. It’s going to be strictly on a “how-you-feel” basis. I’m sure it won’t be too extensive, but I am under the impression that I will be able to do stuff, which is nice.

I’ve timelined it out to a T. I’ll be done with chemo May 16. We’ll be down here in Arizona. I think I’m supposed to be down here doing chemo. It sucks that I’m away from the team, but I get to be with my wife and baby girl, so that’s very exciting.

May 16 is not the end. I know that for a fact, but it’s the last day I should go through this nine-week chemo plan. Hopefully the port comes out then, and that would mean I don’t have to do any more chemo. Since this was so early and was non-detectable in my blood, only through lymph nodes, the only way to test it is to make sure that it’s not back in my lymph nodes. We’ll go through another CT scan in mid-June and that scan should be 100 percent clean.

We haven’t gotten to the point of discussing what’s going to happen after chemo. I think there is a possibility that I stay down here in Arizona until that point, but I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to respond, how I’m going to feel, what I’m able to do and not do. That’s more about baseball activities than it is getting through chemo.

It took me a long time to put baseball “over there,” where I’m able to separate my family and baseball. I know baseball will be there, so I’m just going to enjoy my time with my family right now.

My faith is the one thing that I can lean on. I’ve already had that talk with God. I’ve asked him, “Why?”

Why me? Why this? What are you doing?

I feel like I’ve gone through that battle and that trial with him. It’s out of my control and it’s not my plan, but it’s going to be taken care of.

***

Everybody’s on the same page: The whole front office said to take care of this first before I even worry about baseball, which is really a blessing. Having the organization stand behind me through this is phenomenal.

Bud said, “If you need anything, let me know. You’re going to be fine; you’ll get through this. We’ll figure it out when it’s over.” He’s been very understanding and heartfelt through this whole thing.

Coming back to pitch for the Rockies this season is a good goal. I don’t know at what point in time – that’s not in any timeline I can give. I think it all depends on how this goes and where we stand nine weeks from now.

***

There’s a reason for this. I don’t know what that is, but there’s a reason.

You always appreciate a child being born into this world, but now it’s beyond that. I think that what my wife and I have had to go through before our daughter, Everleigh Rae, is born would have drastically changed if she was already here. My wife and I just keep moving forward. It’s exciting. I can’t put it into words. I feel so blessed. Going through what we’ve had to go through, and I also get a baby girl out of this?

I don’t know when she’s coming, but I get to spend whenever she comes until nine weeks is up, and then we go from there. It’s exciting! Man, that’s what I’m going to look forward to. It’s going to be awesome.

It’s a blessing.

***

It’s crazy to me that the support I’ve received was so vast. It was very cool. People that I didn’t even know. Now, it’s like we’re in this together and we got through it.

Moving forward, how can we help people realize that the earlier the detection, the better?

Kristina actually brought it up: “There’s something you can do for other people.” And I agree. I’ll probably announce it at the end of the season. I want it to be something that is based around testicular cancer, whether it’s helping out other people who have it already, or getting the word out to go get checked.

I think some of the misconceptions people take away from it is that if you have one testicle removed, you can’t really have kids. That’s not true. That’s one of the questions I asked the doctor. I want to be sure we can still have children, and he said there wouldn’t be a hindrance.

***

I think the message is simple: If you find something, you need to speak up.

I found out through this whole process that if I wouldn’t have said anything, apparently it goes away for 10-20 years and then it comes back very hard in your 50s. If you don’t catch it early, then you’re looking at a whole different treatment plan. The one thing I want people to know is that early detection is the biggest key in this whole thing. If you catch it early, then your odds of beating it are drastically changed.

The cancer, pure seminoma, is 99 percent curable. In layman’s terms, 70 percent after surgery you’re cured, and if you go through a round of radiation or chemo, typically you’re 99 percent. But pure seminoma is very curable through either of those two.

My perspective has changed. I think I have a little bit more “appreciation,” but also a little more “intent” – everything’s a little more meaningful now. Even bullpens. Before it was like, “I have a bullpen today. Fun.” I think last year I got better at taking it a little more professionally and a little more seriously. But now, it’s even more serious. It’s like, “I can appreciate this. I can go about my craft the way I want to and know that I’m here.”

If anything, it’s kind of pushed me in a way.

I’m not going to let something beat me now.

Editor’s Note: Chad and Kristina welcomed their daughter, Everleigh Ray, to the world on March 29

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