In the aftermath of the Summer of Cancer, neither Dave Rose nor his wife Cheryl can quite bring themselves to say it without some understandable trepidation and hesitation. But there is some part of them that feels ... well, grateful for the terrifying experience they have lived these past few months.
Rose, the BYU basketball coach and father of three, smiles more. He does things he never used to do. He's home in time for dinner during the basketball season. He takes his daughter to school. He doesn't disappear from family life during the season. He and his family live more in the moment. "Today is a good day," Cheryl likes to say around the house.
Sitting in a room in the Marriott Center on Monday morning, Cheryl was moved to tears when she said, "You never want to say you're grateful for cancer. We were fortunate; there are so many others who have had nothing good come out of it. But we're so grateful we have that perspective, and I don't know if we would have gotten it any other way."
Rose shrugs off the basketball losses that once ate at him, although these days he hasn't exactly been tested much on that front. As fate would have it — or perhaps it is some cosmic sense of balance — just six months after Rose was diagnosed with cancer and lying in a pool of his own blood staring at a death sentence, he is leading the greatest basketball season in the history of the school.
The Cougars are 20-1 heading into an always-difficult road game at New Mexico tonight, and ranked as high as No. 10 in the national polls.
"One of my challenges was to convince others I was up to this," says Rose with a wry smile. "I've used this line before, but now the players are playing to protect me so they can keep my health in a positive direction."
When Rose discusses his cancer, he talks about it in the present tense. It's not something he had it's something he has. Because the cancer left the source where it originated (pancreas), he can never be considered "cured," but it is treatable and it is unlikely to return for years to come. Every six months he undergoes a CAT Scan to determine if the cancer has returned. Each time he reports for a scan, the butterflies return, but so far he has passed the tests.
There are constant reminders of his good fortune. The same week he reported for his second scan, Rose saw newspaper stories reporting the deaths of actor Patrick Swayze and NCAA president Miles Brand — both of pancreatic cancer. "I've had three acquaintances who died of it," he says.
Rose knows the score of this game. He knows pancreatic cancer is among the deadliest of cancers. There will be some 42,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer this year. By the time most people are aware of the symptoms, it is usually too late. About 95 percent of pancreatic patients are dead within five years of diagnosis and 80 percent of those are dead within a year.
"It was quite a summer," says Rose wistfully, sitting in his office. "There were a couple of days that were pretty intense."
What was going on? Rose, a man who had hardly been sick a day in his life and never missed a day of work, was laid out flat on his back, unable to walk or even sit up. The family was on a plane flying from California to Las Vegas for a family reunion when he started to feel nauseated and dizzy... His wife and daughter moved to adjacent seats so he could lie down across all three seats.
The symptoms were the same as those he had experienced a day earlier when he and his family were at a theme park. At the time, he believed that maybe the hot June sun had left him dehydrated or maybe he had the flu. He sat on a bench and finally laid down on the bench. Eventually, he left his family and returned to the hotel to rest.
He felt fine the next morning, but once in the air he grew sick again... Flight attendants gave him oxygen and made him comfortable. Paramedics carried him off the plane to an ambulance and drove him to the hospital. That's where he would spend the next week as doctors scrambled to determine what was wrong with him.
His blood pressure bottomed out every time he sat or stood, which indicated the possibility of internal bleeding. Doctors dropped a scope down his throat to check for a bleeding ulcer, but they didn't find one. What they found instead was a stomach filled with blood.
While waiting in the recovery room afterward, Rose's condition plummeted. Cheryl was by his side and could see he was in serious trouble. He confided to her, in a weak whisper, "Something is wrong with me. I've never felt this way. I don't' think I'm going to make it."
Within minutes he began to vomit buckets of blood (during one two-day stretch he required 10 liters of blood — about twice the amount of blood the human body contains).
"I could see by watching the eyes of the doctors and nurses that they were scared," recalls Rose. "They thought they knew what was going on and didn't. It was one of the scariest times. That actually helped the doctors. It changed me from a guy with a little problem to a guy with a high priority level."
Says Cheryl, "He was lying in a pool of blood. He was throwing up blood everywhere. He went from having one person by him to a whole team. I grabbed the doctor and said, 'This man means everything to me. He's my husband and I need him; he's a father to children who need him; he's a son and his parents need him. Don't give up on him.' I just wanted the doctor to know. Then they made me leave the room. My large son was there to catch me because my legs stopped working."
A CAT scan revealed a mass on the spleen. Dr. Bernadine Hanna, the surgeon, believed he was going to find a hematoma — a blood-filled swelling resulting from an old injury. Instead, he found a tumor the size of a grapefruit. He removed the spleen and part of the tail of the pancreas, as well as six lymph nodes that didn't look right to him. Afterward, he told Cheryl about the tumor, but assured her that he believed it was benign.
On Monday morning — a day and a half after the surgery — Dr. Badrunnisa Hanif asked to speak to Cheryl outside her husband's room.
"It's cancer," he said.
"Is it bad?" she asked.
"It's not good," the doctor replied.
Then they walked into the room and told Rose.
Tuesday brought more bad news. Dr. Hannah steered Cheryl to a small children's table in the corner of the waiting room where he told her the latest diagnosis: Pancreatic cancer.
"That's when I lost it," says Cheryl. "I knew what that meant. I had read a book about it. It was a death sentence. I told him, 'I can't do this without him.' Dr. Hanna had tears in his eyes. He told me, 'If you have to you can. I know because I lost my wife to a brain tumor four months ago.' He pulled out his cell phone and showed me her photo. He told me, 'If the worst thing happens, you can do this.' For the first time, I realized I might be faced with that, and I might have to get it together."
Wednesday brought still more bad news. Rose experienced a shortness of breath and dizziness. Doctors discovered a pulmonary embolism (blood clot) lodged in his lungs. "It kills a lot of people," says Rose. "It could have broken off and gone to my brain."
He was treated with blood thinners that broke up the clot.
Every day in the hospital brought increasingly bad news. First, they suspected the flu, then it was a bleeding ulcer, then a hematoma, a benign tumor, cancer, pancreatic cancer, then a pulmonary embolism. "I kept thinking, 'How can this get worse?' says Rose. "Then it would."
Finally, there was good news. Rose was airlifted to the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute, where he underwent a battery of tests. One day a team of doctors and interns entered his room to tell him the findings: Rose had a neuroendocrine tumor. It is one type of pancreatic cancer that is treatable — and very rare.
The oncologist told Rose that in the 15-year history of Huntsman, where thousands of cancer patients are treated each year, this was only the sixth or seventh time he had seen this type of cancer. Rose was told that out of a million people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, only about five will have the treatable neuroendocrine type.
"I knew what it meant," says Rose. "That was exactly what I wanted him to say. You can't be happy when you're diagnosed with a form of cancer — but this was much better."
It was just one of several fortunate breaks that Rose has pondered in the months since then. Dr. Hannah isn't a cancer specialist, but a surgeon specializing in bariatrics. His surgery and instincts proved brilliant. When cancer experts at Huntsman studied the pathology of the tissue that Dr. Hanna excised from Rose, it was discovered that the margins were clean of cancer. Rose didn't even require chemotherapy. Further, almost on a whim the surgeon had removed the six lymph nodes; three of them proved cancerous...
The cancer invaded only the tail end of the pancreas; if it had invaded the head of the pancreas, Rose "would have been in deep trouble," as he puts it.
Rose wonders how things would have turned out if he hadn't gotten lightheaded or bled internally? His symptoms might not have been discovered until it was too late. As it was, the cancer did not invade the lungs, stomach or kidney. It did enter the spleen — the one organ that can be removed.
And what if the symptoms had raged a month earlier when Rose and his wife were in Nicaragua on a philanthropic venture? Would he have gotten the proper treatment and the blood he needed?
"I can go back to a half-dozen things that could have been different that might have produced a different result," he says. "Why those things happened is hard to answer."
In December, the Roses appeared at their annual party for the Children With Cancer Christmas Foundation. They have been part of the organization since he became BYU's head basketball coach five years ago. It provides Christmas presents each year for families who have children with cancer, but, at least as important, it also provides a support group for cancer victims and their families. Parents can visit and compare experiences with other parents with sick children.
This year's party was different for Rose, of course. He was one of them. He and his wife cried all night long as they visited with the families, most of them old friends.
"I always wondered if anything I was doing was really helping," he says. "But I found out that when we receive support and know someone cares that it actually does give you strength — physical strength — to go on. I received amazing support from the administration, fans, players, friends, family, coaches. It helped me get through it."
"There was no question that this year's party was different," says Cheryl. "It was different for the families, too. I noticed it as they came up and gave us hugs and talked to Dave. I could see it in their eyes. They looked at him differently — they were thinking you know how we feel."
The irony of Rose's cancer is that he has been involved with the cancer cause for years. Besides the children's organization, he was the first coach in the state to join Coaches Versus Cancer, a national organization.
Rose returned to work in August, but in a way he left some of himself behind. Like most coaches at the Division 1 level, he had been obsessive about his job. He would come home late from work during the season, eat a hurried dinner and then watch video the rest of the night. Now he comes home in time for dinner and interacts with his wife and daughter, Taylor, their only child still living at home.
The family used to give him a wide berth after losses; there was no talking to him. When he called his wife after a loss to Utah State this season, she was wary, but he cracked a joke about the game and actually laughed. "We didn't play well," he told her, "but we'll be OK."
"He smiles and laughs more during the season," says Cheryl. "He's calmer before games. There's a peacefulness about him."
He does things he never did before. He surprised his wife on her birthday by taking her to New York, where they saw four Broadway shows. He took her to an art museum on the BYU campus – "He didn't even know they had one before," says Cheryl. He took her to the symphony and on a hike in the mountains. "He even played a card game with us, and he hates them," says Cheryl. The other day he spoke at the Joseph Smith Building and noted, "I've been here six or seven times, and I never noticed the (carved) ceilings."
"It's taught us both to enjoy the journey," says Cheryl. "I used to worry that Dave was sprinting a marathon. I worried about his health. ... This profession is so hard on coaches and their families. We put so much importance on what these gets do. They let it define who they are. It's a job, it's not who they are."
The new, more relaxed Rose has even let his hair down, so to speak. Some players were stunned when they saw him for the first time after the cancer bout; not only had he lost a lot of weight, but his hair had gone from brown to whitish-gray in a matter of weeks. The players attributed it to the cancer.
"Actually, I just stopped worrying about it," Rose says with a grin.
He and his wife remind each other at home that "Life is good." Looking back, the coach notes, "It's hard to believe, but I feel good. I know I'm fortunate."36 comments on this story
When Rose met with the team upon his return from cancer, he and his wife asked them if they would help them repay the many kindnesses they had received by helping others and then reporting their experiences to their coach. The players have been observed helping strangers with their luggage in airports and interacting with sick children and teaching basketball skills to kids.
They haven't been so generous with their opponents on the court as they have been one of the country's dominant teams. Recently, Cheryl worried aloud to her husband that the team faced a "tough" stretch of road games.
"When I laid there those nights in the hospital, that was tough," Rose said. "This is just an opportunity."