Cancer is the politically correct disease. It likes those who ingest cigarettes, alcohol and almost anything else in excess, but it strikes elsewhere randomly and indiscriminately. It has no bias. It attacks the healthy and unhealthy, the young and old, the strong and weak.
It doesn't care if you're 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, or that you're sculpted like Adonis. It doesn't care that you've abstained from smoking, drinking, drugs, even pop or candy. It doesn't care if you're only 37.
It doesn't care if you're David Draney, and you're all of the above, plus a former national-class decathlete from Brigham Young University, a schoolteacher, a father of two, a husband to Carol.
Where does a story about Draney start the beginning or the end? With the living or the dying? The before or the after?
Here's what people who knew Draney say: that he believed he really didn't learn to live until he was dying. After surgeons removed his leg, while they were chipping away at parts of that body he had worked so hard to perfect, he hit his stride.
It is a quirk of life that a man who can bench press 300 pounds can be undone by something so small something at the cellular level that it can't be seen. Chondroblastic osteosarcoma is the official name. Bone cancer.
Draney was standing in front of the mirror one day, checking his physique, as his wife had seen him do so many times, when he noticed a lump on his hip. It was 1997.
"I told him to go to a doctor," says Carol.
Draney let another couple of weeks go by; the lump seemed bigger. He visited a longtime family doctor. The X-rays were inconclusive. The radiologist listed a number of possibilities, among them being chondrosarcoma, a type of cancer.
The family doctor scoffed. "No way," he said. "You're the healthiest person I know."
What if it were chondrosarcoma, Draney asked? "Then you're a dead man," the doctor said.
They were old friends, the doctor never considered that Draney really had the disease, but the words came back to haunt them.
Draney, like most athletes who experience soreness, underwent ultrasound treatments, but after a couple of weeks the lump ached. He knew from experience that such a response was odd. He was sent to Logan for an MRI and a bone scan.
"David has cancer," they told Carol.
David was instructed not to go home, but to report immediately to a specialist in Salt Lake City.
"We actually laughed about it," says Carol. "I was saying, 'Can you believe it? You have cancer.' I didn't know how serious it was."
Draney had always been healthy, but there had been one scare. When he was 15 there was a similar lump on his hip, which surgeons removed and pronounced benign. Almost two decades later, cancer showed up in the same spot.
"The doctor said that's where it originated," says Terryl.
The specialist told Draney that part of his hip would have to be removed. Draney wondered what he would look like, would his pants be crooked, could he still dunk a basketball? "Look," the doctor said, "I don't care what you're going to look like. I'm trying to make sure you'll be around the next 20 years and be with your wife and kids."
"That was his wakeup call," says Carol.
The first couple of checkups turned up no tumors, but by the third checkup the tumors were back. They moved to Minnesota to seek help at the Mayo Clinic, where the diagnosis was changed from chondrosarcoma (slow growing) to chondroblastic osteosarcoma (fast growing). Rather than amputate his leg, he elected to try chemotherapy, a decision he later regretted. The tumors were so powerful that they actually grew resistant to the chemotherapy. Nine months later, doctors took the leg at the hip.
But three months later, the tumors were back, and so a pattern began. Every time tumors were removed, they returned with a vengeance.
They took the leg. They took part of a lung. They took part of his spine, part of a vertebra, part of his intestines, part of a rib, and so it went as the tumors progressed up his back. In all, he underwent 22 surgeries during his 5 1/2-year battle. At one point they removed a football-size tumor from along the spine.
"They were whittling away," says Terryl. "They'd always say they got enough margin on (the tumor), but they'd always come back."
Mark Robison, Draney's track coach at BYU, recalls, "I'd ask him how he was doing, and he'd say, 'OK, but I was in the shower this morning and found a couple more tumors.' They'd grow like lightning."
The pain and suffering he withstood was intense and was increasingly debilitating. At one point near the end, surgeons left an open hole in his side through which food would exit, bypassing his clogged colon completely. (By then, he was eating only for taste.) A visitor could see directly into his stomach.
It must have been especially galling for Draney to watch his body be deconstructed piece by piece. He was a superb all-around athlete who treated his body like a church inside and out.
When Draney, who grew up in Washington, moved to Afton in the Star Valley area of Wyoming for his senior year of high school, it was a good day for the local coaches. A gift fell in their laps. Draney was tall and fast and he dazzled his new classmates because not only could he dunk a basketball, he could do it just about any way you could imagine it.
Draney was also an expert fly fisherman and an excellent musician who over the years played the violin at high school graduation ceremonies, church meetings, seminary and school functions.
"He was good at everything he did," says Terryl.
A devout Mormon, he tended to see things in black and white; there were no gray areas. As a young boy sitting at a ball game one night with his father, he pointed out the No Smoking signs to a total stranger and told him to put out his cigarette. During a trip to a basketball game, he once stood up on the team bus and reprimanded the team for using foul language. After graduating from high school, he served a two-year mission in Brazil for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He threw most of his energy into sports. He set four state records in the long jump, high jump, triple jump and high hurdles and accounted for more than half of his team's points en route to the team championship. Competing for BYU at the Western Athletic Conference championships, he won the triple jump in 1988 and the decathlon in 1989 and qualified for the NCAA championships, where an injury prevented him from finishing the competition.
He high-jumped 7 feet, 1 inch; he long-jumped 24 feet, 6 inches; he scored 7,443 points in the decathlon. After completing his eligibility, he went to Puerto Rico to train for the Olympics, hoping to represent the United States or, possibly, this new homeland, but he ran out of money and had to return home after a few months.
She first saw Draney at the swimming pool of their apartment in Provo, where both were BYU students. "He was 6-4, dark and handsome," Carol recalls.
She asked the other girls about him, and they said stay away. He was "a player" (a lady's man) and he was vain. "So I snagged him!" she says, laughing.
After getting to know him and falling for him, Carol decided the girls' initial assessment was, well, right.
"He was really vain," she says now, laughing again. "He was very particular about how he looked."
He shaved his body, made sure his flattop was just so, honed his tan at the pool or the tanning booth.
"He had a good personality," Carol explains. "We were laughing and joking all the time. And he was strong in his beliefs. He wasn't afraid to stand up for what he believed."
They broke up once because he said track was No. 1 and a serious relationship was a distraction. When she rejected his offers for friendship "I already have enough friends," she told him he rekindled the romance. They married in 1988. She was 19, he was 23.
Carol pretty, outgoing, humorous, quick to laugh would prove to be the perfect mate for the rough times ahead. She was wrong about one thing, though: "We were friends," she says.
He finished his degrees in math and physical education, accepted a coaching position at Mountain View High in Orem and continued to train until reality set in during his trip to Puerto Rico. After returning to the United States, he called the school superintendent in Afton and, as luck would have it, the school had one opening, and it required someone with a degree in math and P.E. Just like that, he had a job in the town where he had summered as a youth, living with his grandparents and fishing the local streams.
"Living in Star Valley was his other dream," says Carol.
Just wanted to let everyone know that David was in the hospital recently. Wednesday, he was really confused and trying to get out of bed. He actually fell out of bed while I was out of the bedroom. Miraculously, he didn't get hurt or pull any of his many tubes out. A few hours later, he had a seizure so I called for an ambulance to come. He had another seizure in the ambulance. . . . He was released from the hospital Friday and is doing fine.
After the cancer struck, he continued to teach school for a couple of years until he could no longer do it.
To distract his mind from the pain and fill the empty hours, he learned to make fly rods. He made them so well that he was able to sell them. Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Vice President Dick Cheney, a Wyoming native, and wound up giving him one of his handmade fly rods. Cheney liked it so well that he bought one for President Bush as a Christmas present.
There was another favorite diversion: Helping other people with problems. "After we visited the Mayo Clinic, he realized there were thousands of people who, due to no fault of their own, faced catastrophic situations beyond their control," says Terryl. "He wanted to help those people."
He started the David Draney Foundation that raised money for victims of 9/11. He brought a family who had lost a husband/father all the way from New York to tiny Afton, Wyo., for an auction. Enlisting the help of celebrity athletes (Star Valley's Olympic wrestling champion Rulon Gardner was among them), they raised $25,000 for these total strangers, handed a check to them and sent them home. The auction has become an annual event.
"He bent over backward to help others," says Terryl. "I've seen him lying there in that bed making those fishing rods when he could hardly hold his head up, but he wanted to make it for somebody as a gift. He tried to do anything he could to be generous."
Says Robison, "Most of my experience with him was when he was so focused on becoming successful, and then this happened and he looked outward and he helped so many people. The people up there love him."
He spoke frequently at Mormon firesides, graduation ceremonies, to various youth groups and church meetings. He called people in trouble. One man lost his wife in a car accident; the next day he got a call from Draney asking if there was anything he could do. The man was moved. "He's dying of cancer and he's asking me if he can help me," he told Carol.
"He had a tremendous influence in the valley the last few years because of the way he handled the situation," says Kevin Hyde, Draney's high school track coach. "People knew what he was going through. He was a nice athlete, but it was more about what he became because of how he handled the disease."
Through most of the ordeal, the Draneys remained positive and remarkably humorous about it all. Draney liked to joke that he had always wanted to be on TV and in newspapers but "not as a one-legged man." He boasted that he was the "best one-legged fly fisherman in America." When his leg was amputated, he told doctors, "I want it. I paid for it. I'm going to freeze-dry it and make a lamp out of it."
Sometimes Carol and David lapsed into silliness. She contracted a temporary case of Bell's palsy one side of her face was paralyzed (the result of stress and/or a virus) and they pounced on it for laughs. As Carol recalls, "He told me he was thinking I had a stroke and would die, and he would beat his cancer and who would marry him. And I was thinking my face would stay like that and David would die and who would marry me. The doctor in the ER probably thought we were nuts because we were laughing so hard."
The humor was infectious. One day Draney's grandmother, Laura Draney, showed up at the house with a six-pack of pop and a bag of Baby Ruths. "All that clean living hasn't done you any good, so you might as well try this," she said.
For years, Draney thought he was going to beat the cancer and convinced everyone else, as well. One day his dad said, "You're going to beat this thing, so let's go on living." His son replied, "That's a wonderful idea." They bought a boat and ran it ragged for two years with their fishing.
It was only in rare private moments that Draney gave in to doubts. During one checkup, doctors told Draney they found four new tumors three more than the previous checkup. After they left Draney alone in the room with his father, he said, "I don't think this is a good sign." His father shook his head and said, "No, it's not a good sign."
"It was the only time I heard him comment," says Terryl. "Otherwise, he was, 'Ah, don't worry, I'll be fine.' People would call him and he'd say, 'I'm doing great.' His mother and I knew it wasn't all that great, but he never complained."
By now the family was hoarding time. Ashli came to her father last September and asked him, "Dad, can you hold on until Halloween?"
"I think I can," he replied.
"I want you to," she said.
After Halloween had passed, she asked if he could make it until Thanksgiving. Then it was Christmas. Then it was her birthday in April. He answered the bell every time, but by then he was fading fast. There were days when he asked them to bolt his recliner to the boat and take him fishing. "I don't feel that good lying here; I might as well feel this bad in the boat." After Christmas, he was bedridden. At one point, he asked doctors to use him for cancer treatment experiments "Don't waste this opportunity," he said. Doctors wanted to accept the offer, but lawyers nixed the plan.
Before Draney was anesthetized for the last time, his father whispered some things in his ear "I don't know that he heard it all," says Terryl. "He was more interested in saying goodbye to his kids and wife." A couple of days later he visited his son again. He asked Carol if he could shave his son one last time, as he had so many times previously. He put a hot rag on his face and shaved him carefully, talking softly to his unconscious son. He died two days later on May 20.
"In the last week or so I've been struggling a little with it," says Terryl. "Maybe it was because there were a lot of things that had to be done right after he died, so we put our feelings aside. Now you realize you've lost your son. There are moments you have to just stop and shed a few tears. Then you can go on a while, then you have to stop again."
As for Carol and David, for years they had this routine. Whenever they became separated in a store, for instance, they would whistle to find one another. So when the time came to say goodbye, Carol told her husband, "You better whistle when I get up there." David replied in kind. "Don't forget to whistle."
E-MAIL: [email protected]