Chiefs

Chiefs safety Eric Berry returns to football field after being declared cancer-free

Roughly nine minutes into her son’s news conference Wednesday, tears began streaming down Carol Berry’s face.

There was equal parts happiness and relief. What else could there be? Over the last eight months, she and her husband, James, had watched their son, Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, take on the biggest challenge of his 26-year-old life — a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma — and win.

“To be honest with you, it felt good to get back on the field,” Berry said, his mother sitting to his left and wiping her eyes. “But in my mind, I still feel like I have work to do … this is just a checkpoint, and I’m going to just keep pushing through them.”

On the outside, Berry has made it look easy. He had been remarkably quiet since he was forced to leave the Chiefs last November, with the most of the updates during his cancer treatment — all positive — coming via the Chiefs.

But Berry’s parents were among the few who knew just how hard he had to fight, every day, to earn the cancer-free diagnosis he received June 22, and return to the Chiefs’ practice field Wednesday.

 

They were there when, weary and uncertain of his future, Berry cried. They knew about the times when, after a round of chemotherapy, Berry struggled to do even five pushups. Or, worse yet, struggled to get out of bed.

“In the beginning, it was hard — it really was,” James Berry said. “It was really hard to think that you would see something taken from your son that he really loves so much. Those possibilities always go through your mind — what if he can’t play again?”

According to cancer.org, the five-year survival rate for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma is 90 percent for those in stage one and two, 80 percent for stage three and 65 percent for stage four.

Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for about 10 percent of lymphoma cases and is considered to be highly curable.

“As long as I knew what we were dealing with, I was able to work with it, because once I got the diagnosis, how we were going to treat it, James and I went to work,” Carol Berry said.

And work they did. Berry was treated at Emory University in Atlanta, which is close to his hometown of Fairburn, Ga., where his family still lives. This was on purpose; everyone figured Berry’s best chance to beat cancer would come with his loved ones by his side.

It didn’t take him long to see how much he’d need his parents. One morning early in his recovery, Berry was sitting at breakfast with his father when he started crying, he says, because he knew recovery would be “a long road.”

“The one thing that did stick out to that he told me was just — everybody wants you to be strong in this situation,” Berry said. “(But) the thing he told me is: you can’t be strong every day. You want to be mad today? Be mad. You want to be sad today? Be sad. But the thing was, don’t stay that way. Once you get it out your system, go on about your system and get back to work.”

Berry, who underwent six chemotherapy treatments in all, followed his father’s advice and remained diligent about focusing on the task at hand, which was returning to the field one day.

So he continued to stay active, even after energy-sapping chemo treatments.

“When you add chemo into something, that’s a whole different monster because it literally feels like you’re dying,” Berry said. “You can’t go around people, you get sick easily, you have no energy. Certain foods you can’t eat. It just saps you for a good amount of time. And really when you look at it, you’re not really battling chemo, you’re battling yourself the whole time.

“It was to the point where I had to set goals … ‘Today I’m going to make sure I get out the bed, I’m not going to stay in the bed all day,’ because I would literally stay in the bed all day.”

Another goal was to do five pushups per day. Berry said there were even times where he’d work out and end up crying afterward.

“Just because first of all, I couldn’t believe that I made it through the workout, but I couldn’t believe that it was that hard,” Berry said. “I was trying to push myself to the limit, (but) I couldn’t push myself how I wanted to.”

Berry, however, drew motivation from several sources. He learned on the old, but true, football clichés about taking it one day at a time, and focusing on what he can control — namely, his attitude and effort.

He also drew inspiration from the way ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott and ABC newscaster Robin Roberts handled their bouts with cancer.

“(Before) Stuart Scott passed (in January), he made this comment about how you beat cancer is how you live,” Berry said. “That really stuck with me, so I really embraced that quote and just stuck with it going forward.”

Berry also marvels at the fact Roberts underwent chemotherapy for 10 days straight.

“Anybody who’s been through chemo knows what it does to you, knows how it drains, knows how it affects you,” Berry said. “She did it 10 straight days … to see her sitting up there doing what she’s doing, after that, it was like ‘Man, I can’t complain about nothing.’ I’m getting it once every two weeks. So I just kind of challenged myself and moved forward that way.”

The day Berry was declared cancer-free — June 22 — should be considered the culmination of all that hard work. But he didn’t forget the people who helped him get there, starting with his beloved parents.

“I think the biggest thing, I was just happy that I was able to make that journey with everybody that was close to me,” Berry said. “I think that was the best part about it, because when you’re laying there … there was many times when I was like ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m going to wake up tomorrow,’ and I’m just up thinking, scared to go to sleep. And then there’d be a point where I was like ‘Forget it, I’m going to sleep. If I don’t wake up, I don’t wake up.’

“The thing about it though, is just going through it with the people that’s close to you, you don’t think about material things … you think about experiences you have with people close to you. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. And making it through that journey, although it was difficult, I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. I was just so thankful to go through it with the people around me.”

The Star’s Chris Bumbaca contributed to this report.

To reach Terez A. Paylor, send email to tpaylor@kcstar.com or call 816-234-4489. Follow him on Twitter @TerezPaylor. Tap here to download the new Red Zone Extra app for iOS and Android devices.

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