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Nike Comes To The Cancer Rescue At Knight Cancer Institute

cancer rescue

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In the world of sports we hear about teams, players, and the games they play. Even individual sports like tennis and golf have team related conditions. Watch any professional golfer with his caddy discussing the next putt and see teamwork in action.


A cancer team, or cancer treatment team, is the same. After my diagnosis for HPV16 throat cancer I assembled the team. From an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist, to a radiation oncologist, to a chemo-therapy oncologist, they gathered data for my best outcome. That was the shared goal. I had a couple of others I shared with them, like avoiding opioid addiction and secondary infections. Modest goals by most standards. Not the highest bar.


What started as a lump that didn’t go away, and not a bad one as lumps go. Who hasn’t had a lump, had it looked at by a doctor, then told it’s nothing to worry about? Every time. That’s what I expected from the test results to ID the lump. Except that’s not what happened.


Testing showed the bad news, then worse news, and before I knew it I was a cancer guy. Me? It’s a surprise no one wants. Like every Army veteran has drilled into them, it might be a bad day, but you still need to do something with it. Learning I had cancer wasn’t worse than anyone else learning they have cancer. It just feels that way.


Once the treatment process started I had to get used to a certain loss, the my autonomy. The whole thing felt like it was out of my hands, that there was nothing I could do but show up and hope for the best. That was my plan.


I interviewed a chemo-therapy clinic, heard the pitch, toured the facility, and set a start date. I also had an appointment with OHSU Knight Cancer Institute – Tualatin for a second opinion. My thought was one chemo place was no different than another. Science is science, but my wife wanted me to get a second.


Dr. Yee laid out his ideas for treatment after reviewing my stats. I sat with Elaine in an exam room listening to a different approach. How different? One doctor prescribed a routine of three different loads of chemo-therapy along with a chemo pump. Dr. Yee said only one brand of chemo would do the job, that I didn’t need the other two. Or the pump.


His idea matched what I’d read about approaches to the lump growing in my neck, but not the first clinic. Dr. Yee was right on target. What did I really know about chemo? Nothing, except it flows into the blood stream. My years as an Army medic helped a little with the anxiety. I’ve drawn blood and given shots, been a first responder on emergencies, and driven the ambulance. I wasn’t shock proof, no one is.


Like the rookie cancer guy I was, my first notion was the more chemo the better. I was ready to take ten varieties of chemo, line it up. If cancer treatment called for some manning up, I was ready. And I was wrong.


Before joining the Army I’d been a high school all-American wrestler. I had scholarship to wrestle in college. After one year I dropped out, joined the service, and earned a tryout for the All Army Wrestling Team. Where I got pounded, but that’s sports.


Part of wresting training is conditioning, another word for running. So I became a runner instead of wrestle. Since I was stationed in Philadelphia I found a great running path along the Ben Franklin Parkway that led to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was 1975. They were beautiful steps that led to a great view of the city. Those steps are called the Rocky Steps now for Rocky Balboa.


At the University of Oregon in 1976 I ran the Prefontaine Trails. It felt special because Pre came from Coos Bay and I grew up in North Bend. I ran in Nike shoes to complete the bonding circuit.


After moving to Portland I ran a ton of 10K races, the old Cascade Run-off, the Seaside Marathon (3:32), and Hood To Coast. Nike gear felt like the only choice for real runners like me and my seven minute mile.


In the years since, I’m 62, I turned into a gym guy, a weight training guy. And a writer, a museum cataloguer and Collection Manager for the Oregon Historical Society. I got married, had kids, and lived the sort of life I never dreamed of, the whole she-bang.


Until cancer called and I had to answer.


I got cancer positive results and knew I was a dead man walking. I’d go through all of the therapy like a trooper, but felt like it was pointless in the beginning. My reasoning was if this was a hundred years ago nothing would have helped, and it probably wouldn’t help now. So long, cruel world. You won’t have David Gillaspie to kick around any more.


After I calmed down I realized I wasn’t ready to bow out, to say my good-byes, to shuffle off this mortal coil like a modern Hamlet. I was busy writing my blog,, reviewing screenplays I’d written. But the clock was ticking louder and louder, and my time was over at the final bell.


Until I interviewed with OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and Dr. Yee.


Once I was accepted into the treatment program my spirits soared. A breath of life came over me as real as the wind in the Columbia Gorge. Suddenly I was a Nike man. I joined Michael Jordan and LeBron. I had Phil Knight in my corner. I had a chance, a fighter’s chance, to knock out the cancer trying to take me down.


Just Do It wasn’t a slogan, not an excuse to sleepwalk through treatment. Just do it meant do it right, to bring my best to get the best. Every Nike sports ad took root in my mind and lifted me out of my gloomy preconceived outcome. They changed my outlook from bleak to blinding hope, from certain defeat to a victory lap. Does the mental part really matter? Ask any cancer guy’s family.


Getting treatment in the Knight Cancer Institute mainlined optimism beyond reason. If anyone was moving on with their life after cancer, it would be me. If anyone could endure the indignities of cancer killing therapy, it would be me. I’d coached for years in youth sports to prepare kids for the challenges they’d face growing up with one goal: That they remember their time on my teams as a boost to better things coming, that they would continue in sports the rest of their lives because of me. All about the kids and me, me, me.
It was asking a lot, and now it was my turn. I got my answer pretty fast.


I couldn’t quit on Nike, on my doctor / coaches, on my fellow chemo guys / teammates. I couldn’t throw in the towel and walk away. If a life in sports teaches one thing, it’s not to quit during a game. I reflected on all of the great wrestlers I knew, at least those I lost to. I couldn’t quit on them. I’d be a double quitter. I didn’t want my name on that hall of shame.


To anyone else cancer treatment might seem like a small thing. It’s such a widespread disease where it’s hard finding anyone untouched, so what’s the big deal? ‘Get through it and get on with the rest of your life’ is the prevailing thought. But that misses the key issue.


Life after cancer is often life with cancer even with no cancer detected at the end of treatment. Some live under the cloud of imminent doom. That was the condition I felt before I started with the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. If I’d gone anywhere else, that would be the condition I’d be living in today.


Fear and anxiety.


Call me nutty, but the Nike connection to my cancer treatment helped turn the corner from knockout victim to fighter. Instead of starting out feeling like it’s early in the last round of a scheduled 12 round event, I’m in the middle rounds swinging and jabbing, sticking and moving.


In the beginning my ENT said, “Cancer treatment is not a weight loss program,” to answer my weight loss questions. As a former wrestler I still have memories of weight loss. I wrestled at 177 in college, 180 in the Army.


After I finished treatment I’d sunk from a hefty 260 down to 200 lbs. Against sound medical advice I wanted to see the number one in front of my weight. One morning I hit 199. That was enough. Maybe too much, but it made me feel better to reach a goal, even if it left me whipped.


‘Just Do It’ became my mantra. It reminded me to do better every day, and still does. The world of sports and medicine collided. Sports Medicine became more than taping ankles, it became a lifeline. My recovery is based on both sports and medicine being on my side. Who is the opponent? Everyone who feels like they can’t possible carry on.


Don’t make that the lasting memory you leave behind.
Show some resolve. Help someone in a small way no matter how helpless it gets. You. Can. Just do it.
About David Gillaspie
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