Episode 9 - Chad Andrus - Denver, Colorado - USA - Survivor - Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
Bruce Morton: Hello, and welcome to the Cancer Interviews podcast. I’m your host, Bruce Morton, and on this segment, we have a guest whose story will inspire and inform. He is Chad Andrus of Denver, Colorado. Chad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a diagnosis he beat. Before we get started, we want to remind you Cancer Interviews does not provide medical advice. If you seek medical advice, we ask that you consult a licensed health care professional. Now let’s get to it, and Chad, welcome to Cancer Interviews.
Chad Andrus: Thanks, Bruce, glad to chat with you about the whole experience.
BM: Now let’s get a little background about you so we can get to know you better. So if you would, Chad, tell us where you’re from, what your life’s work has been, what you enjoy doing with your leisure time, that sort of thing.
CA: Sure, I have background in a number of places around the country. I was born in Wisconsin, that’s where most of my family grew up, but being the youngest of five, I primarily grew up in Texas. That’s where I went to high school, that’s where I went to college, and then I started working in media. I started working at a radio station in Dallas called The Ticket, sports radio, that’s where I really launched my career. Got recruited from there, and got to work on the national network level. I went to Las Vegas, and spent a few years there and made a lot of great relationships, then I left there and moved to Colorado in 2001. Then it was in 2008 that I ran into my diagnosis.
BM: Okay, we’ll get to that in a moment, but Wisconsin, the Dallas metroplex, Las Vegas and then Denver. I am guessing you like Denver the most if you have been here this long.
CA: Yeah, I don’t plan on leavin’. Of all the places I’ve been, of all the places I have visited, I do love it here. Denver is my home, I don’t plan on leaving. This is where I met my wife, this is where I started my family. We definitely call it home, and we have no plans to leave Colorado.
BM: Now Chad, if you think back to the days leading up to your diagnosis, would you say you were in good health?
CA: Yeah, I would. I have always been really active. Played sports growing up, have always been physically fit, in good shape and relatively strong for my size, I’m not a big guy. Leading up to my diagnosis in particular was an interesting time because it also came at the time I was getting ready to get married. I was working to get in shape for the wedding, the honeymoon and everything. So the weight loss that coincided with my working out made me think I was doing a good job of working out, until we learned there were other factors contributing to that.
BM: Now would you say those factors provided warning signs, in other words, was there a lengthy period of time between when you first noticed that weight loss and when you were diagnosed, and if so, what was that like?
CA: It was a while. It was the summer of 2008, where I was getting prepared for my wedding. I was getting married on the top of Vail Mountain on the Fourth of July, 2008. It was about as All American of a summer as you could have and it was a fantastic experience, then we left at the end of the summer, early fall for our honeymoon. We were going on a long trip to the Mediterranean. We were going to be gone for almost a full month. We were going on a cruise; we were going to visit ten countries and all kinds of cities. So while I was working out, trying to be in shape for the honeymoon, I was feeling fit and I was feeling light, I found out that when I returned from that experience, that’s when I got my diagnosis regarding those contributing factors; but it was on the honeymoon that I felt there might be things that I need to get checked out, so much so, that I went to a doctor on the boat because I was coughing, I had a dry cough, so it took a while between that experience and being on the other side of the world before getting home to my primary care physician and moving on from that point and getting an official diagnosis, so that’s where I started getting some warning signs and indications.
BM: So were you sort of in limbo between the time you’d been checked out on the ship and when you got home and received a more detailed, more credible diagnosis once you got home?
CA: No, not really. I wasn’t too concerned with it because I was traveling so much, basically in a different country every day and on a boat where there are a lot of germs and there are lots of different respiratory infections, and you could have a dry cough and those things could linger six weeks, sometimes six months at a time with an infection you would normally fight off. So we thought that might be it, I was in foreign places, eating foreign foods, eating different things, I was around a lot of people, so I could have just picked up a little bug, and really we thought that for a little over a month or so, even after I got back. It wasn’t until I was back for three or four weeks and I am still coughing here, I have had antibiotics, nothing is changing. My primary care physician said let’s do a chest x-ray to make sure, and that’s when things really escalated from that point.
BM: And at that point did you primary care physician refer you to a specialist?
CA: Yeah. He referred me to an oncologist to get checked out to see what was going on. When they did the initial scan they saw that there was some sort of mass in my chest, it was quite large, so my primary care physician said it needed to get checked out, and then everything just went light speed going forward, and your whole world changes, like you are going to see an oncologist, and now it’s like, what’s goin’ on, you don’t know what your diagnosis is going to be and you’re waiting for that and that’s really tough for me mentally, because I didn’t know, between being in that limbo, I mean there is definitely something here. Until I found out, that was definitely difficult for me because I wanted to know what was going on. And I was just married, I am putting this on my new bride, so yeah, I’ve gotta go to the doctor for this. She’s working, she’s traveling with her business, and I am trying to figure this out while I’m still working. It was a lot to juggle, it was a lot of stress. I just telling myself I don’t know what it’s going to be, I don’t know what’s going on, I am waiting for these results to come back so I can know what is going on within my body and what we’re going to do about it.
BM: Did your oncologist give you a range of scenarios, a best case and a worst case?
CA: Once they did some blood tests and did a bone marrow biopsy as well, which was the most painful part, I don’t wish for anybody to go through that, it is pretty awful, so much so they made my wife leave the room, they wouldn’t let her stay in there with me, that was the most physically demanding part, but when they were determining what it was, I just remember talking to her and saying I don’t wanna die and I don’t want to live knowing I am gonna die, those were the two things I said to her. So I wanna know what’s going on, so waiting those few days to get a diagnosis from my doctor was the most difficult part. So when they said you have lymphoma, this is what it’s doing to your body, this is where it’s at, they call it a Bulky Stage One, so it was a large mass, but it had not spread or done anything to affect the rest of my body, so I was very fortunate that way. Once I had that diagnosis and the doctor said this is what we are going to do, you are going to go through chemotherapy and we’re going to see how it responds, you’re probably going to have six to eight sessions of chemotherapy and we will probably follow that up with radiation just to make sure the treatment plan is working to get rid of everything we can get rid of. Once we had that plan in place and we had a timeline and knew what it would be, I felt like I had been through the hardest part, because I could see there was something I had to do to get better. So as long as I trusted my doctor and his plan and I believed in that, then I could go forward. I knew it was going to be physically draining, it was going to be difficult, I wasn’t going to feel good, it was going to be exhausting and I was going to go through all the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, but once did all that, I could be cured. I could get to the end, then go back to the normal life I want with my new wife and everything we had planned for.
BM: Chad, the following is a thought, a sentiment, that has been echoed so many times that I believe it to be true and I think a lot of other people do, too, but it has been said that having a positive attitude while not sounding all that medicinal, can be a key ingredient in a patient’s addressing their cancer journey. You sound like you had a plan in place and a positive attitude to go with it. Would you agree with that?
CA: Yeah, I would agree wholeheartedly. I think a lot of it is the confidence I had in my doctor. I felt confident in the plan he put together and I felt comfortable with that plan, but as much as I would think it was my background and my mental toughness and I would like to take credit for it, it’s my wife. She’s my rock, she’s my planner, she immediately put together notebooks and she did research, and said this is what you need to do, this is what you need to eat, this is how much you need to sleep. She immediately went into planning mode so we would have a plan to go at this. It was never a thought process, this might work or this might not work. It was never approached that way. It was like, this is the task we must do and here’s what we need to do to make it work, so I think that had a lot to do with the approach and the positivity to it. There was her support, the trust we had in my doctor, because it allowed me to know I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just my body whittling away during treatment, it was the support, I had the network I needed, it was going to be okay, if I just did what I was supposed to do. Just follow the instructions and we can get to the place we need to get to, and I don’t think there was ever a point in which the confidence in that plan wavered.
BM: You had mentioned Kristi’s role in the plan, almost a medicinal role, but there is also an emotional piece. Could you talk about what Kristi did in an emotional way?
CA: You have to put yourself in her shoes for just a moment. We got married in July 2008, went on our honeymoon in September, came back and I was diagnosed in October. So she’s newly married to me, and she’s gotta be wondering, ‘What did I get myself into? I just got married to the love of my life, is he gonna be okay? Is he going to make it through this? Is it going to affect how we are going to have a family?’ So all these things are going through her head. So her being able to focus, and again, so this is the problem we have, this is the task we face, so we have to adhere to the plan, whether that was making sure I had healthy, homecooked meals, or to make sure I wasn’t in crowded, germ-infested environments when I was undergoing treatment and make sure I got enough rest, to not have any adverse reaction when chemo could make me sick or if I did drop a lot of weight or if I lost my hair, she took care of me like it was any other day. She enlisted her family, my family to help out. They would do dishes or do laundry or make sure we had enough from the grocery store, things like that. It was even her suggestion when we were about three months in with the chemo treatment that we went and got a puppy and I still have that dog, she’s eleven years old now, and she was the one who helped heal me through my treatments because it would force to get up and walk her every day, to move my body to get sunshine, to have a dog to pet and play with and relax me a little bit if I was getting tense or nervous. I mean, it’s all those things, just a combination of things in your daily routine to keep things as normal as possible for you while you are going through what you have to go through.
BM: And what about the emotional piece from your family? It sounds like they, on both sides, really came through.
CA: Yeah, it came to making sure that she was supported as much as I was supported. If I wasn’t feeling well, if I needed to sleep and get rest, they could come by and bring groceries, or vacuum the house or take the dog for a walk, just things that are in your everyday life that you need to keep up with that they could help out with if we didn’t have time to get it done.
BM: Now for what has to be the most unpleasant part of this journey and that’s the chemo. I know the chemo dosage can rise in certain cases, but that’s actually considered a positive thing, but if you would, describe your chemo experience from start to finish.
CA: Sure, I had eight total sessions. I do remember my oncologist telling me I was going to complete the chemo treatment in eight, and I said I was going to do it in six. But he’s the expert, he knows what he’s talking about. I did it in eight. I would go in on Mondays because I was still working at the time. I was working for a pro basketball team in Colorado and the schedule was set up in which I could do the play-by-play of the games and do the other media responsibilities and the schedule was set up with most of the games being on Friday and Saturday or Thursday and Saturday, occasionally you have a Tuesday and a Wednesday in the middle of the week but almost everything was geared toward the weekends, so I never had a game for the 50-game season on a Monday. So I scheduled all my chemo treatments for Monday. I could go in, sit in a big comfortable lounge chair, they put in a port in my chest so they could port the chemo straight in and I didn’t have to get injections every time. It’s kinda like being plugged in. I’d never known that was an option until they did a little surgery to put the port in, and they would plug me in. It was usually about three hours or so, sort of a slow drip into your body to make sure to make sure you didn’t get overwhelmed. But I would take my computer, my laptop, I would type away and make game notes and prepare for my game broadcast and things like that. There was a point they would give you some Benedryl or something like that during the chemo drip itself and it would make you a little sleepy, so I would get drowsy, close my computer and take a little nap. You would eventually wake up because you would get so much liquid in your body and you’d have to go to the bathroom, so you’d take your little drip cart with you to the bathroom. There were some strange experiences where you’d see some wild colors at times when you did go, but you’d go back to sit down and you’d wait until you were finished and they’d unplug you and send you back home. Most of the chemo sessions I didn’t notice too many adverse effects, but I will say the first one was an eye-opening experience. They had warned me of the potential side effects. Everybody knows as it progresses, sometimes you will lose your hair. They had warned me of the nausea, and other types of sickness and things like that, but they also said you would get a type of heartburn or an indigestion in your chest if you didn’t take something in your chest to kind of ward that off, like an over the counter medicine to ward off acid reflux, that sort of thing. On my first chemo session, I did not do that. I recall vividly that night trying to lay down and go to bed and having a burning sensation in my chest I could not get rid of. I would try to burp and get rid of that burning sensation and my wife was in bed and trying to go to sleep. It got worse as I tried to stand up to get rid of that acid, and I was just standing next to the bed as my wife was trying to go to sleep as my wife, and I was trying to burp and burp and burp for hours before I got any relief, but I was finally able to go to sleep; but I certainly learned my lesson that prior to any chemo sessions, I took my medicine and I never had to deal with the acid reflux again. Going forward through the rest of the eight sessions, it did cause me to lose quite a bit of weight. I was probably about 25 pounds lighter than normal by the time I finished chemo, and then I started eating anything and everything. It kinda like going back to being a teenager. If you are lifting weights and trying to build muscle, you could have anything, pizza, milkshakes and anything as calories and it would go on as muscle for you. The doctor said anything that tastes good, eat it. I couldn’t eat raw meat or raw fish, that didn’t want me eating that because of a risk of infection because of your weakened immune system. But eat anything that tastes good. A lot of things did have that tinny, metallic sort of taste. I remember my wife bringing me a sandwich one day for lunch, and I was in the chair trying to eat it and it tasted like I was eating an aluminum can. That particular takeout restaurant, I still don’t go there because that’s the taste I remember. Those were the things that I remember from the chemo itself, more than anything else.
BM: Chad, and what was the sense of relief when that phase, the chemo phase of your treatment was done?
CA: It was great. Every six weeks I would go in for the PET scan to see if the chemo was working, to see if it
was shrinking the activity the way it was supposed to. So every time I would get one of those scans, it would sit in there for 45 minutes, almost an hour. I always just dozed off and took a little nap. The good news is, every time we got the results back, it was showing a little progress, so I knew that the plan was on track. The way my oncologist told it is the radiation we did after the chemo was a form of insurance. It may or may not make a difference, but we just want to knock out anything we can. Once the chemo was through, and I was going through three months of radiation treatments, I felt I was on the road to recovery at that point, like everything was on the uptick after the chemo was done
BM: Now I want to get to the more pleasant part, that of the chemo aftermath and your going into remission, but I just have to go back and revisit something that you had mentioned earlier, as somebody who did play-by-play a very long time ago, I know how mentally taxing it is because you have to stay on top of every play and every facet of every play, so I have to ask you, how could you do play-by-play when you were on chemo at the same time?
CA: It was a relief for me to be able to do it. It is what I love, it’s my life’s work. For me, I wasn’t crazy about going into the office every day on non-game days, but the actual games, that’s what you live for. So to be able to do that, we were simulcasting, so it was on the radio, but it was also a video broadcast, so my concern with that was, I was on camera, and I did have any hair, you lose your eyebrows, it’s all gone, so I did not look healthy when I was on camera. I preferred for them to show more of the game and less of me, but I went through the entire 50-game season and the playoffs. It’s kind of interesting because when the chemo started around the end of October and then finished in April before the radiation, the basketball season also finished. It just so happened we had a really good team. They won the NBA ‘D’ League championship. That was on April 9 and it coincided with one of my last weeks of chemo. So it came to a head at the same time. So it was kind of a culmination of everything to come to that point. So I went on the radiation and from that point it was easy.
BM: Describe the feeling of triumph knowing you had faced this very formidable opponent and gotten the best of it.
CA: It was gratifying. You know, all those fears, all those things you hear about when you are waiting that diagnosis, you don’t know what it’s going to be, it’s a horrible, horrible disease with an extreme range of outcomes for people all across the world. So you don’t know where you are going to fall within that spectrum when you are waiting for your diagnosis or when you are going to be starting treatment. So to be able to follow that plan and then return to life as you’d known it with your wife and to be able to start a family a couple years after that, to be able to do all the things you have wanted to do, you’re very grateful. You know, it worked. The treatment, the plan, the medical technology. It worked the way it was supposed to work. So there is a great deal of relief and gratitude that it worked out the way it did.
BM: So did you and Kristi do anything by way of celebration?
CA: We did. You know one thing that has always been a big part of our relationship is travel. We love traveling all over the world, experiencing new places and new things, and when you’re in chemo, you can’t travel. They don’t want you on airplanes, they don’t want you in crowded airports, they don’t want you in foreign countries because your immune system is compromised. They don’t want you far from home and far from your doctors. So, with me in remission, we went on a trip. Kristi’s parents, who also live in Colorado, went with us to celebrate, once I was cleared to travel again. So I did a few things that at another time I might not have normally done, but I decided to take a few more risks. I swam with some stingrays in the Cayman Islands, I jumped off a cliff into a river in Belize and did some daring things because I figure I only live once. I figured I may never be at this place again or have a chance to do this thing again, so let’s make the most of it. I do think I have done a much better job of adopting that attitude and taking that stance since that point. There are a lot of things that when I was young and focused on my career, I would worry about this or worry about that, or say, what if, or I don’t have time to give to that, and I think the diagnosis changed me quite a bit. Now I am going to do what I want to do. I am going to do it on my timeline, and I will let everything fall into place around that. I am not going to be beholden to schedules or fears as I certainly was when I was younger
BM: Chad, we’re about to wrap up now, and I want you to think about somebody watching this interview and somebody who has just been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma or any type of cancer. By way of advice, any takeaway from your experience, what would you like to share with that person?
CA: One, you’re not alone. It affects a lot of people and there are a lot of people who have successfully dealt with it and moved on. When you talk about lymphoma in particular, it is quite interesting because it affects people who are on the younger side of their life. You’re usually under 40, I think the average age is between 24 and 38 when you are talking about a lymphoma diagnosis. So you have two-thirds of your life left once you find a solution and beat this terrible disease. So you need to focus on what it is that needs to be done, how you can give yourself the best opportunity to treat it and I will say having a support network is a large part of it. I was fortunate to have that. The other thing is having that confidence in my doctor. So find a doctor you trust. Find someone with a plan and you’re comfortable with that, knowing the doctor will be with you every step of the way. I will say, in my experience and that of many others, it is temporary. There are a lot of things that happen in this world to all kinds of people, all kinds of different families, but how your attack it, how you plan to get yourself through it, makes a huge, huge difference. So remember, it’s temporary. Don’t stop planning for your future, because having that to look forward to is what is going to carry you through the tough time in the present.
BM: Okay, Chad thanks very much for being with us, and thanks for an uplifting story, and one that was told in an extremely eloquent way. Once again, Chad, thanks so much.
CA: My pleasure, Bruce.
BM: And remember, as Chad said, you are not alone. We are all in this together, and Together Everyone Achieves More. So until next time, take good care and we’ll see you on down the road.
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