Somewhere in what is sure to be a mountainous pile of well-wishes from adoring kids and admiring adults is the letter I wrote to Chiefs safety Eric Berry last December. When I read that Berry had left an NFL game due to chest pain, I “diagnosed” him with Hodgkins lymphoma from hundreds of miles away, based only on the doctors’ words: mass in chest.
How did I know? I had heard those very words from a different doctor’s mouth just a year earlier when I was diagnosed with the same cancer.
My feelings about Berry are no more special than those of the average fan, and a Chiefs die-hard could justly accuse me of jumping on the Berry Bandwagon. It’s true. I’m a huge football fan, but I don’t follow the NFL very closely, and until last season I knew next to nothing about Eric Berry.
But my perspective is rare: Not only have I gone through what Berry went through, but as a former captain of the UCLA football team, I have some understanding of the physical and psychological demands of high-level ball, and I feel compelled to tell the world that Berry’s participating in camp this season is not as impressive as the press is making it out to be — it is much more remarkable and inspiring than that.
At 26, Berry was stricken in his physical prime. I was stricken at 36, an age beyond which the only guys still playing in the NFL seem to be Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and a few creaky kickers. But I have been no slouch in my post-football days, and I can attest to the fact that chemotherapy respects one’s physical fitness as much as the ocean respects a wayward dinghy; it will just go on about its brutal business without any regard to what it splinters, sinks and destroys.
Like most athletes, I had always assumed I was above the health concerns of normal people — I feared high ankle sprains and torn ACLs, and never devoted a thought to cancer and the like. For me, and I’m sure for Eric Berry, cancer was the first dark sortie into the world of physical problems that ice and even surgery can’t fix — the kind that threaten your whole being, not just your paycheck.
An article on ESPN.com says that a turning point for Berry came early in his treatment, when he realized that he had underestimated chemotherapy. Until the agony of chemo kicks in, you really do believe that it might be as simple as all that encouragement to “Kick cancer’s butt!” implies. You are, after all, a formidable human being who has slogged through seemingly endless two-a-days.
However, that initial pop of “I can whip this thing!” and the misguided and facile sports metaphors — tackling cancer, his fiercest opponent — turn out to be as useless as all the early cheerleading is well-meaning. It’s not that you can’t whip this thing; it’s just that the diabolically patient chemotherapy can make mincemeat out of the kind of fleeting psychological burst one might summon to beat an opponent on one play, or over one quarter.
But an NFL player accustomed to the crucible of training camp likely has a reserve of what is actually needed to make it through a long stretch of chemo: grim resolve.
Chemo. The word is thrown around a lot, but understood little. Standard Hodgkin’s treatment has the patient in every two weeks for a two-to-four-hour infusion of four drugs — Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine and Dacarbazine — that are just about as pleasant as they sound. There’s a TV and the nurses are nice, but you still have to sit there in an uncomfortable bed or vinyl chair for hours as these drugs drip into your system.
I imagine Berry’s affluence secured him a cushier chair and a few house calls, but unless there’s a magical treatment available only to the 1 percent, Berry’s wealth could not shield him from the same misery you or I would face. You are given a steroid to keep the drugs from reducing you to jelly right there in the infusion room. As if the process were not already chilling enough, one of the drugs is bright red, and makes your pee an alarming rust color. You leave exhausted and nauseated.
Your immune system and general physical state decline for a week, then start to tick upward. After nearly two weeks, you’re feeling pretty good — just in time to get poisoned again. How you feel fluctuates up and down in these two-week cycles, and they get pretty predictable, but make no mistake: Over the six-month course of treatment, the line trends sharply downward. This is where that grim resolve comes in.
But even steely psychological fortitude can’t stave off the physical toll, and chemo is merciless. It taxes the body where you didn’t know taxation was possible, and don’t ask me to explain that further. Berry talks about his goal of doing five push-ups during some days of chemo, which, to anyone who has not been through it, probably sounds like the warm-up for a Silver Sneakers fitness regimen. To me, it’s Everest. I don’t think I did five push-ups during my entire treatment.
You know what I — a former D-I defensive lineman, one-time marathoner and avid bicyclist — did for exercise when I could muster the strength? I walked the dog. Berry can say it, I can say it, but you can’t really understand crippling fatigue until you’ve earnestly listed got out of bed as your day’s towering achievement.
My wife and I bought our house from a little old lady, and in healthier days we smugly chuckled about the safety rail that was bolted onto the wall of our shower. But when I was in the depths of chemo, and that handle was the only thing that allowed me to stand up from one of the dozen or so (!) daily baths I would take to ease my suffering, it wasn’t funny — it was a godsend.
My physical weakness and lack of motivation begat even more physical weakness, which sapped my will in a depressing cycle that broke only after chemotherapy was finished. On my last day, May 7, 2014, I remember going outside to meet my wife, who was arriving home from work. I walked toward her as she shut the car door and entered the backyard, and when my eyes met hers, we wept and wept. That ecstatic moment was when I began to shed the physical weight of cancer treatment, but I am still daunted by the task of getting back to where I was before I was diagnosed. God knows where I am mentally and emotionally.
That is why, in my letter to Eric Berry, I signed off with my wishes for his full recovery and return to professional football — in 2016. After all, I was just getting my feet under me six months after my treatment ended, and my job does not require me to compete and collide with the fiercest athletes on the planet. The end of Berry’s treatment, I calculated in December, would basically coincide with the beginning of the 2015 NFL season. That would just be too soon — I thought.
But things change, and it seems I made the mistake of underestimating Berry’s strength, to say nothing of his determination. On the day I wrote Berry, it seemed impossible that he would play this season; now that doesn’t seem so far-fetched. On that day, Berry was newly diagnosed; now he’s cancer-free. And on that day, I sent him a letter as a football fan a cancer survivor; now, that same letter is from a true admirer.
Pete Holland is a writer and songwriter living in Nashville, Tenn. You can read his blog at PissAndVinegarBlog.com.