Drews cope with simultaneous cancer diagnoses together
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or email@example.com November 16, 2011 11:24PM
Homer Drew kisses his wife Janet during the dedication of Homer Drew Court at the Athletics and Recreation Center October 30, 2010 at Valparaiso University. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 18, 2011 5:26PM
VALPARAISO — Homer Drew — ever the ham, ever the showman — heard the doorbell ring on Oct. 24 and went into full-blown acting mode. He frantically looked around at all the flowers and food dishes and cards and tokens of affection that had turned the house into a Hallmark store and threw his hands in the air.
“Where are we going to put this one?” he bemoaned to his wife of more than four decades, Janet, channeling his inner Olivier.
So Homer got up — gingerly, of course, considering his prostate had been removed barely two weeks earlier — and opened the door.
Janet, who barely three weeks earlier had her bladder and dozens of lymph nodes removed along with a hysterectomy, turned to look.
And she immediately started crying.
Standing in the doorway was Scott Drew and his family. A week before Baylor’s season-opener, he found two days to sneak away to be with his ailing mom, his recovering dad and his overburdened siblings, Bryce and Dana.
“It was a very special moment for her,” Homer says. “It was really encouraging for her to have the whole family there. It was a neat surprise, and it really helped her.”
They didn’t go out to dinner. They didn’t go see a movie. They didn’t do much of anything, other than sit around and be with each other. That’s all they could do.
And that was probably the high point of a dreadful two months for the Drew family.
On Sept. 9, Homer was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Three days later, Janet was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
Janet had her surgery on Sept. 30. Homer had his less than a week later, their hospital stays at the University of Chicago Medical Center overlapping by three days, their fates being determined a few rooms apart.
Homer’s doing better now. Early pathology reports have the doctors hopeful they got all the cancer. The recently retired Valparaiso men’s basketball coach is popping up a lot more often at the Athletics-Recreation Center these days, as ebullient and optimistic as ever.
But Janet’s far from out of the woods. Her surgery was far more invasive, and her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She’s on the verge of being strong enough to start chemotherapy, and only after four to six weeks of that, will the Drews know if the cancer is still there.
“It’s like a blur, like a nightmare,” Homer says of the past two months. “It seems like it’s flown by. Every day, there are always things you have to do and doctors to talk to and exams and CAT scans and blood samples. It’s just a nightmare with all of this happening bang-bang, three days apart.”
Cancer has lousy timing, and it doesn’t play fair. It doesn’t care what plans you had, what dreams you have, what future you had imagined.
It’s upended untold millions of lives. And now it’s upending the Drews’ lives. Plans are on hold. Dreams are downgraded. The future no longer promised.
But Homer Drew remains as positive as ever. It’s all he can do.
Patient and caretaker
Here’s how Homer Drew figured his retirement would go: Lots of evenings at the ARC to see Bryce coach. Lots of trips to Waco to see Scott coach.
Lots of golf, too.
Here’s how Homer Drew’s retirement has gone: Lots of trips to the hospital. Lots of phone calls from doctors. Lots of long, sleepless nights. Lots of prayer.
And instead of taking care of himself, he’s had to take care of his wife, who’s never needed him more.
“As I look back, it was kind of a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I didn’t have time to worry about me, I was always trying to help Janet. Now that we’re getting her a little further along, I’m trying to get back and take care of myself a little more.”
But he’s also becoming a fierce advocate for cancer prevention. He had been through this before — in 1996, cancer claimed his father. So he was prepared — for his own diagnosis, at least. And he wants other men to be, too. He tells the Valparaiso players. He tells the other coaches. He tells his friends. And this weekend, as VU hosts a remarkably timed Coaches vs. Cancer three-day tournament at the ARC, he’ll tell everyone he can.
“The latest stats I found said one in six men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime,” Drew says. “The biggest thing we want to do is make men realize that they can beat cancer by getting ahead of it and knowing about it. Men have a wonderful opportunity to beat cancer if they get ahead of the game.”
Cancer has become his life — his own recovery, his wife’s care, his educational mission.
It was supposed to be about fun, family and basketball. After four decades of coaching, he had earned that life of love and leisure.
But this is Homer Drew, professor of positivity, with a doctorate in optimism.
He still firmly believes he’ll get that life.
“We’ll get there,” he says. “We’ll get to do all the things we wanted to do. And for now, I can still watch all their games — computers are a wonderful thing.”
Plans put on hold
Here’s how Janet Drew figured her retirement would go: Lots of time to travel with her husband. Lots of time watching the kids coach.
Lots of time.
Here’s how Janet Drew’s retirement has gone: Lots of time in bed. Lots of time in hospital gowns. Lots of poking and prodding. Lots of catheters and sensors and needles. Lots of prayer.
Janet taught fifth and sixth grade before retiring nearly 10 years ago. When Homer first retired in 2002 and handed the program over to Scott, Janet was excited about the prospect of having her husband all to herself. But when Scott took the job at Baylor a year later, she wholeheartedly supported Homer’s choice to take the job back, patiently waiting for him to rid himself of the coaching bug.
He finally did last spring.
“It’s been a while since she retired,” Homer says. “She was eager for me to join her.”
Well, he’s with her now. By her side at home. By her side at the hospital. By her side for the next six weeks of chemo, which could be the toughest stretch yet for both of them.
“She kept saying all summer, ‘Now that you’re out of coaching, boy we can do a lot more together,” Homer says with a wistful smile. “At 2 a.m. in the hospital, I asked her, ‘Are we doing enough together now?’”
Burdens and basketball
Here’s how Bryce Drew figured his first year as a head coach would go: Lots of hours at the office. Lots of time watching film. Lots of freedom to obsess over his program, the way all the best coaches do.
Here’s how Bryce Drew’s first year as a head coach has gone: Lots of drives back and forth to Chicago. Lots of evenings just spending time with his parents. Lots of prayer.
“I keep telling him to go home beause he’s always over helping me or his mom out,” Homer says.
Oh, Bryce is still obsessing over how to integrate his new players into the lineup, over which lineups work best against which opponents, over when the NCAA Clearinghouse will allow Vashil Fernandez and Dino Jakolis to join the team full time.
But those headaches have become his haven.
“I haven’t missed any practices,” Bryce says. “I’ve tried on my off days and before and after practice to do a lot to help my mom and dad. But actually, coming to practice has been a nice release — to come out for a couple of hours and focus on the team and on getting them better. It’s nice to go two hours without really thinking about the things going on outside the court.”
Bryce praises his assistants for picking up the slack, but his assistants haven’t noticed much slack to pick up.
“Bryce was a warrior through this,” says 10th-year assistant Luke Gore. “Still is. It’s amazing all he’s gotten done given what he’s been dealing with.”
Valparaiso has always been a program that preaches and fosters a family environment. But the Drews actively have tried to keep the Crusaders out of the loop. They don’t want every day to be a question-and-answer session about how their old coach is doing.
Many of the players found out about the Drews’ diagnoses through the grapevine (or Brandon Wood’s Twitter feed). Others found out through the media. Bryce addressed it once early on. Homer stopped by recently once he started feeling better to update them. The light blue blazer (for prostate cancer awareness) Bryce wore during the season-opener at Arizona — also part of the Coaches vs. Cancer event — warranted an explanation, too.
But that’s about it.
“Coach Bryce has really tried to keep the focus on basketball and to separate his basketball life from his family life,” junior Ryan Broekhoff says. “And I think that’s really helped us remain focused. But we all know about it.
“Any time I see Homer walking around here, it kind of brings a bit of happiness to the day, just to see him around as he was when I was playing for him and he was healthy. He’s always up, always cheerful, so full of energy.”
Bryce sees his dad just about every day. His mom, too. And as fortunate as he feels to be able to do so, the situation still weighs on him whenever he’s not on the basketball court.
“Each night, you go to bed and you feel like you’re going to wake up and things are going to be back how they were two months ago,” Bryce says. “Our whole lives have changed completely in the last six weeks. All the things we haven’t been able to do, who knows when we’ll get to do them again?”
Playing with a ‘purpose’
Here’s how these Coaches vs. Cancer events usually go: Lots of colorful apparel. Lots of nice gestures. Lots of money raised. Then, it’s over, and everyone moves on.
That’s not how this one will go. Not here. Not now.
“To me, it’s amazing how God works,” Gore says. “We signed up to be in this Coaches vs. Cancer thing three years ago. And now it has so much meaning to all of us.”
The coaches will wear blue for Friday’s game against Akron. They’ll wear yellow the following two days in support of bladder cancer awareness. The school will sell T-shirts to raise money. The marketing department is begging students to “stay a day” to come to Friday’s game even though it’s Thanksgiving break. Broekhoff says the Crusaders will be “playing with a purpose.”
Valparaiso’s not just going through the motions on this one.
Homer Drew was always quick to recite the next opponent’s statistics — he even briefly slipped back into Lou Holtz mode while praising the coaching job his son has done so far, touting Georgia Southern as if it were North Carolina — and now he’s rattling off cancer statistics like he used to rattle off rebounding statistics.
But nobody needs to see the numbers to know the horrors of cancer. Just about everyone has had a loved one deal with the disease.
And for so many who haven’t, Homer Drew is now that loved one.
The calls, the e-mails, the letters, the flowers — they still come regularly. Gore still gets several calls a day from former VU players, former Bethel College players, colleagues and friends asking for updates. Drew’s first recruit as an assistant coach at LSU recently sent a letter. As did a player who played for him at his first job as a high school sophomore coach in Lafayette.
The Drew family has touched countless lives over the years. And they’re not done yet, cancer be damned.
“Janet and I are so lucky to have the support system we do,” Homer says. “I know it sounds strange to say we’re lucky, but we are. And if we can help others be aware of cancer, and the things you can do to prevent and treat it, and to develop a support system of their own — then something positive can come from all this.”
As for that grand retirement Homer and Janet had planned? All the basketball they’d get to watch? All those exotic sunsets they were going to see? All that time they’d get to spend together?
It’ll come. They believe that. For now, though, they’re grateful for what they do have. After all, for all the misery and pain cancer brings, it brings something else, too — perspective on life, and a limitless appreciation for it.
“It’s not what we hoped for,” Homer says. “But we still have so much to be thankful for. Getting up and seeing the sun and the blue sky every day — that’s really exciting for us.”