2017 Update: Always great to revisit and share this with my friends and family. It took me a long time to be comfortable talking about it but I am fully now. It keeps life in perspective and big picture. I’m blessed to be here. I wrote this back in 2010… 7 years. I’m forever grateful.
Many things in life we feel we have control over. We can prepare, practice, and do repetitive things over and over in anticipation. But for some things, to use a sports analogy, the ball is taken from you on the mound and the remaining innings are out of your control. Life has an interesting even flow to it. Some people get dealt a great hand and some have what seems like never-ending bad luck. But it’s when adversity strikes and you bounce back with a resounding effort to turn the tables in your direction, when you can really appreciate something for what it is.
I will always remember the date of August 29th for one main reason: Survival. This may come as a shock to some of you that read this, but I am a childhood cancer survivor. It was on this date in 1991, that I had the life-changing procedure to remove a grapefruit sized tumor from my body. This day reminds me of all the things I have been blessed with in life.
I was diagnosed in April 1991 with a malignant Ewing’s Sarcoma tumor located near my spine. At the time, I was 7 years old with no idea of what cancer was. I was under the idea that “I’m sick and Children’s Hospital is going to make me better.” I was just getting ready for my 2nd year of T-ball. First grade was ending. All I wanted to do was play Super Mario Bros. 3. I’ll never forget how people looked at me as if I was going to die.
I was in and out of Children’s Hospital in Seattle for a year and a half. My first surgical procedure happened within days of being diagnosed. The doctors wanted to take a biopsy to see how to combat the disease; I was in for a very bumpy ride that summer.
I went through one year of chemotherapy (pre and post-op). I had 3 months of radiation therapy following my August 1991 surgery. I went through 6 different surgeries, including the tumor biopsy, the removal of the tumor, attempting to fuse 6 vertebrae on my spine, putting in/removing the chemotherapy “access line” in my chest, and the last surgery that ultimately structured my severely weakened spinal chord area with metal rods. Only 4 of the 6 vertebrae fused correctly, one of the reasons why I still have a 6-inch steel rod in my back today.
At that tender age, grasping a sickness such as cancer was unfathomable. The mind doesn’t understand or process that magnitude. I was told I was sick but what did that mean? Go home in a few days? No, unfortunately not. But there was one key thing that got me through the countless hours of being too weak to do anything except lay in bed. That one thing? Baseball.
Ken Griffey Jr. burst onto the scene in 1989 for the Seattle Mariners, so by the time the 1991 season rolled around in April (when I was diagnosed), baseball is all I could think of. Being a child in Seattle in the early 90’s, you cherished Griffey as more than an idol, he was simply a way of life. I wanted to be outside playing wiffle ball in the backyard with my brother and my big red “fat bat”.
From what I can remember, when the M’s were on TV, that’s what was on at my house. It was cartoons from 3 to 4 PM and baseball was on sometime after that. Not all the M’s games were on TV back then so you had to savor them. However, there was this special and exciting team that seemed to be on everyday and was the perfect lead-up to a Mariners game: the Atlanta Braves. TBS would carry what seemed like every game at the time and I soaked it up like a sponge. Guys like David Justice, Ron Gant, and Terry Pendleton were close seconds to Junior, Alvin Davis, and Randy Johnson. The “Tomahawk Chop” was becoming the big thing at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium; I lived for it.
I can remember lying in my bed and being ravaged from the chemotherapy when the Braves played the Twins in the 1991 World Series. I can remember Kirby Puckett hitting a HR to win Game 6 like it was yesterday. I’ll never know how I managed to stay awake for long periods of time during that whole ordeal, but something inside me knew “if baseball is on, you ain’t missing it”. The Braves lost that World Series but they gave me something to believe in, something to fight for, something to come back for next season. Baseball kept me going.
Friends and family members would come to see me in the hospital. I’m sure it was a very hard thing for them to see. Many would bring gifts. Some would be coloring books, or sticker albums, things that would help “take my mind off of being sick”. But there was one thing that I loved more than anything at that time: opening wax packs of baseball cards.
They’d come by the boxful; one after another. A baseball card collector’s dream come true. I’m pretty sure I had the entire Topps 1991 set 10-times over. I would sort them by team, then by name (A-Z) and ultimately that became my source of literature. To this day, I know for a fact that baseball cards are a reason I have such a good memory when it comes to sports statistics.
There are so many stories and so many people that had an impact on everything I went through… it’s tough to really start in one area.
I’ll never forget Dr. Conrad at Seattle Children’s Hospital who performed my surgeries and helped assure my family that I was in the best hands possible.
I will never forget a summer car wash sponsored in my honor in Kenmore, WA to help raise money for my doctor bills when all of my insurance coverage through my dad’s union carpenter benefits had run out. My family was facing a financial hardship and people I had never met did incredible things. I thank you!
I will never forget Ms. Goldaide’s 6th grade classroom at my elementary school that raised money to buy me a new Nintendo when they found out mine was breaking down.
I’ll never forget Janis Blair. I was too sick to go to school and was home schooled for all of 2nd grade. Her understanding, kindness, and warm nature will always stick with me. She’s out there somewhere and I thank her!
I will never forget the other sick kids I lived with at CHMC. Some made it like I did, and sadly, others did not. It’s a dreamlike feeling at 7/8 years old, finding out a kid that had a bed 15-feet away from you the night before, had died overnight. These were mind-blowing experiences. Experiences that in a way, mentally, made me grow up quickly; a lot quicker than most.
I wish I could go back and thank every person that had an impact on my survival. The doctors, the nurses, the charity workers, and anybody related to Children’s Hospital. They kept me going. They taught me to believe. They taught me to fight.
The friends of the family: their support, thoughts, prayers, and gifts, helped in more ways than they will ever know. My family was my heart and soul. This disease took some things from me but it never broke my family. How my parents coped, I’ll never know, but they were there for every single step of the way. They believed my time was not up.
I was announced cancer-free in 1993. At times I have dodged discussing my battle with cancer. Many of my friends, co-workers, classmates, etc. throughout the years had no idea I was ever sick and/or the severity of what it was. It’s not something I have been ashamed of, but at the same token, it’s not something I have wanted to sit around and have a discussion on “all about me”.
But on this date, I feel I can tell the world and have no real doubts about it. Cancer did not beat me, I beat it. I am thankful for everyday that I am here. I was given a second chance. That’s something I live by and am reminded of all the time.
As the late great Coach Jim Valvano said just months before cancer took his life: “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”
Thanks for letting me be who I am and sharing this special day of survival with you. I’m Chris Boyd and I appreciate your time.