|« Ohimor is determined to earn the accolades||Colgate football leans on star players »|
Lafayette football player working hard to beat Stage 3 cancer
Pete Bross would run a 20-yard sprint and find he then needed a five-minute rest.
A workout might be followed by a one-hour nap.
That might not be unusual for a 70-year-old. But Bross was just 18.
When he got fatigued, he pushed himself a little harder.
“Me being me, I was the tough guy,” Bross said recently. “I was, like, ‘I don’t need a doctor. I’m fine. I’m just out of shape.’”
Finally, at the urging of his girlfriend, Breanna Mazalewski, and with the dogged reluctance of his mother, Kay, to take no for an answer, he relented and agreed to a trip to the hospital emergency room.
One day later, he was in the operating room beginning a fight for his life.
As it turned out, the problem was not that the former star football player and wrestler at Parkland High School had slacked off in his training regimen. The problem was Stage 3 testicular cancer — and much more.
Bross, a robust 230-pound fullback-linebacker who was preparing to continue his sports career at Lafayette College, got the bad news four days before his high school graduation.
“Two questions came into my mind when I was told the diagnosis,” Bross said. “Am I going to live? Am I going to be able to play football again?”
“God took us in a whole different direction in Peter’s life,” his mother said.
That was in June 2009. Last week, Bross was in full gear as the Lafayette football team went through a three-hour practice in the hot August sun and on the blistering FieldTurf surface of Fisher Stadium in Easton.
Chances are, lots of Leopards were not thrilled at the conditions.
Bross was not one of those. He may have been the happiest player in the stadium.
“It was an unbelievable feeling when the doctor said I was clear and cleared to play football as well,” Bross said. “I’m very happy that I’m healthy, I’m alive, and being able to play football again is a bonus. I love it. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t even describe it.”
Testicular cancer and testicle self-examination are not among the favorite topics of jocks in the locker room, but the disease is serious stuff — especially for young men.
“Actually, it’s the most frequent cancer in men age 18-36,” Bross said. “And yet, when do you ever see that on TV or in ads or anything? You don’t. It’s unfortunate that [doctors] don’t check for it as much as they should. I went through a bunch of physicals prior to my diagnosis and never was checked. Had they done that, I probably could have caught it a lot earlier and saved myself from going through all the trouble I did.”
Testicular cancer gained worldwide attention in 1996 when American cyclist Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with the disease. Armstrong’s battle, and how he went on to win seven consecutive Tour de France championships after being treated, is a great story of victory.
But football player Brian Piccolo, whose life was chronicled in the movie “Brian’s Song,” died in 1970 of a rare disease, embryonal cell carcinoma, related to testicular cancer.
Among other celebrities who have survived testicular cancer are former Phillies first baseman John Kruk, ice skating champion Scott Hamilton, actor-comedian Richard Belzer and NBC news correspondent Dan Abrams.
It is a disease that can sneak up on you.
“I had no idea,” Bross said. “Being an athlete, the symptoms didn’t come to me as quick as with a normal person. I didn’t notice anything down in that region, but by the time I did notice it, it was in my lungs and that’s why I was out of breath.”
Armstrong’s cancer was also Stage 3 when it was diagnosed, and the cancer spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. Bross went down almost the same path.
Bross had his first surgery, and post-operative chemotherapy treatments, between June and August 2009. He was cleared to play football, but he didn’t get into any Lafayette games. During the week of the Leopards’ game with Harvard, he suffered several focal (or partial) seizures, and an examination revealed cancer in his brain.
Bross underwent surgery to remove that tumor in November, followed by more chemo. He was then referred Dr. Lawrence Einhorn at the Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis, at which point his treatment was ramped up.
Einhorn, who headed the team that treated Armstrong, was instrumental, more than 35 years ago, in developing a treatment program that increased the survival rate for testicular-cancer patients from 10 percent to 95 percent.
Bross had two stem cell transplants in Indianapolis between January and the end of February. Whole blood was first drawn from him. It was then separated into white cells, red cells and platelets and frozen. After several days of high-dose chemotherapy — five times the usual dosage — Bross was ready to have his own stem cells retransfused.
After the second go-round, he was able to return home and take oral chemo from May until July.
“I put all my faith in God and it worked, and I’m lucky to be where I am right now,” he said.
The battle with cancer took its toll on his body. Bross’ weight went from 230 to 180; his muscles atrophied. But the disease never took a toll on his attitude.
“I really believe a team is only as strong as its weakest link,” Bross said. “I’m going to do my best to stay as strong as I can, show my teammates you can still get through it. Sometimes, it’s going to suck, but you have to push through it and prevail, overcome the adversity. That’s something my parents have always taught me, keep pushing.”
He is back to 230 pounds, but he admits “I’m still a little bit out of shape. Strength-wise, I’m not quite there. Speed, not quite there. I didn’t find out I was cleared until July 23, so I only had a couple weeks to get ready. I’ll keep working hard and help in whatever way possible.”
Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani said, “Practices have been tough on him. He’s not at the conditioning level he’d like to be yet. He’s got some lung scarring from chemotherapy, which is normal, and that impedes his conditioning somewhat, but he is working extremely hard. He looks very good for a kid who has missed a year of football and been through what he has been through.”
But, the coach added, Bross can bring something important to the Leopards without even being on the field.
“He is a quiet inspiration to everybody here,” Tavani said. “Nobody is talking about it or mentioning it. But we all know that, when you’re a little hurt, just glance over at No. 40 and go, ‘Come on, I can battle through.’ He keeps everybody else battling through just by being around him. He’s a tremendous young man, with a great family, and we’re blessed to be around him.”
Bross’ mother said: “It’s the most horrific thing a mother could see her child go through, but it has made me a better mother, a better wife, a better daughter, a better friend. He has taught me so much, and he has bonded us as a family in ways you can’t believe. When someone’s having a bad day, all we have to think is, ‘What do you think Peter would say?’”
Bross has drawn strength from his teammates, too — more than once. After his initial surgery, he had to be brought home in a wheelchair. His parents set up an area for him in the home.
“My girlfriend came over and my parents were with me,” Bross said. “Then [Lafayette quarterback and Parkland grad] Marc Quilling brought a bunch of the Lafayette players over. They came and said hi. I had never even met anyone. The captains came … a bunch of the guys. It was nice of them to do that. It meant a lot to me. Last year, I did filming and stuff, tried to be as involved as much as I could. But it feels good to have that helmet on again.”
According to the National Cancer Institute website, an estimated 8,480 men will be diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2010; 350 of them will die. Bross plans to be a survivor.
“A lot of coaches talk about finishing, especially here this season, it’s one of our themes. It was something I really wanted to do. Once I found out I had a recurrence of cancer, I wanted to finish this and beat it. My teammates have that feeling right now. We’re ready to go out there and finish, do our assignments, finish the game and win. We’re focused on that. It’s a crazy time for me, but I’m just glad to be out here.”
Pete Bross had an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in his back pocket. He took the necessary physical exam and passed with flying colors. He would, it seemed, soon become one of the Black Knights of the Hudson.
But in the end, he couldn’t take that final step. His desire to follow his dad into the medical profession had something to do with it, but it was more a gut feeling he had about Lafayette College.
More on Pete Bross
Maybe Pete didn’t grasp it all at the time, but the decision to pass up a free ride at Army in favor of need-based program at Lafayette was probably a God thing.
He would certainly say that now, in light of all that has transpired in his life since June 5, 2009.
“It was truly a blessing that I picked Lafayette,” Bross told me last week as we talked about his battle with testicular and brain cancer and his drive to play football again this season at Lafayette. “It’s close to home, and the coaches and my teammates kept calling me, checking in on how I was doing. It was unbelievable support, and it made the entire journey a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
“Lafayette has been remarkable,” said Kay Bross, Pete’s mother. “Coach (Frank) Tavani, coach (Phil) Hallahan, coach (John) Loose, the president of the college, the registrar – they all visited Peter in the hospital. And one night, at least 40 players pulled up into our driveway and were with my son for the whole evening. I will forever big a big endorser of Lafayette College. They didn’t have to do that. They constantly called and kept in touch. Even the professors … how awesome they were!”
About his future, Pete emailed me the other night: “I do want to take a career path in medicine as a doctor, maybe as an oncologist. I want to be the man who tells the patient that they caught the cancer and CAN BEAT IT!”
“IN ALL THINGS, GOD WORKS …”
Faith. That word comes up a lot when you talk with Pete or his mother. There is an undeniable trust in God’s leading.
“He had his weak moments,” Kay Bross said of her son. “One strong drug threw him for a loop, and he said he felt on the verge of being broken spiritually, emotionally. I told him, ‘God has not left you.’ Within minutes, he was very calm.”
She admitted that she did have a time when “in my prayer and rage, I said, ‘God, why can’t it be me?” Then she would be reminded that “we didn’t give this cancer to Peter and God has a reason for all this.
“We did a lot of praying together; Peter is very reflective. He can dig deep and find that God is there. He was praying to St. Jude, the patron saint for helpless causes.”
The Brosses saw God’s leading hand in many ways. Like the fact that Dr. Ronald Bross, Pete’s dad and a gastroenterology and liver specialist, “just happened” to to be making rounds in the hospital the night his son came to the ER. Or, that Dr. Bross had in his pocket a business card for the exact doctor he knew he wanted to call after his son’s diagnosis. Or, the timing of the chest x-ray that revealed a blood clot that, had it broken away and went to the brain, could have killed Pete faster than any cancer. Or how Kay, helping her son pack for his return to Lafayette recently, came across a paper Pete had written in his freshman year at Parkland High that included a line about how Pete had once heard Penn State football coach Joe Paterno say, “We’re all destined for great things.”
I believe God does have a plan for every one of us. I’m not sure what Pete’s plan is today. It may be to help make people aware of cancer, as he and his “team” of about 150 raised a large sum for pediatric cancer at a benefit walk/run.
Maybe he’s to inspire, as he did recently when the soccer team on which his twin sisters Erin and Erica dedicated a tournament to him and won. “He wrote every one of those girls a note telling them about things like keeping faith, focus, respect for parents … so much good that has come, as painful as it has been. If it can happen for Pete, it can happen to anybody,” Kay Bross said.
SYMPTOMS OF TESTICULAR CANCER
From the http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/testicular-cancer/DS00046 website:
Signs and symptoms of testicular cancer include:
§ A lump or enlargement in either testicle
§ A feeling of heaviness in the scrotum
§ A dull ache in the abdomen or groin
§ A sudden collection of fluid in the scrotum
§ Pain or discomfort in a testicle or the scrotum
§ Enlargement or tenderness of the breasts
§ Unexplained fatigue or a general feeling of not being well
Cancer usually affects only one testicle.
For various statistics about the disease, see the Testicular Cancer Resource Center’s website, http://tcrc.acor.org/stats.html
Lafayette football player working hard to beat Stage 3 cancer
By Paul Reinhard, SPECIAL TO THE MORNING CALL
More on Pete Bross
By Paul Reinhard, SPECIAL TO THE MORNING CALL