CRAWFORD | Kyle Kuric and Joey Cecil: Brain tumor stories, and a meeting of the minds
Louisville brain cancer patient Joey Cecil and former Louisville basketball standout Kyle Kuric, who survived his own brain tumor scare, shared their thoughts on their experiences on Friday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The two guys talked for a half hour, maybe 45 minutes. They were there to play a game of Horse, but instead they just talked, one of them holding a basketball, the other holding the strap of a backpack-sized electronic device slung over his shoulder.
One looked like a basketball player, because he is. Kyle Kuric, a former hoops star at the University of Louisville and a professional player in Europe. The other looked like a bowler, because he is. Joey Cecil can roll, was a state champion bowler in high school, and bowled for Bellarmine University. What brought them together was an unfortunate commonality. Both have been stricken with brain tumors.
Kuric’s was discovered two years ago while he was playing professionally in Spain. He underwent surgery, gained international attention, and recovered to take the court and play his first game five months later, becoming an inspiration to brain tumor patients everywhere.
Cecil is one of those patients. A lifelong U of L fan, he’s been a fan of Kuric’s since his famous performance in U of L’s final game in Freedom Hall. But that was nothing compared to how much he admired Kuric after Friday’s surprise visit at Louisville’s Blairwood Club. Kuric showed up to play Horse with him, and brought him a jersey, but most of all, talked to him, and listened to him.
This is some of the story Cecil shared.
It was April Fool’s Day of this year, and Cecil thought he was living some kind of joke. He had tickets for wrestling that night, but after weeks of having migraine headaches that concluded with vomiting about 5-10 minutes after he would stand up, his mother made him go to the emergency room.
They got there at about 2 in the afternoon. At about 7, they got back to a room. Three times over the previous few weeks, Cecil had gone to local immediate care centers, only to leave with diagnoses of sinus infections – something he suffered often. He was about to leave the ER with the same diagnosis when he happened to mention within earshot of a doctor that right before he got sick, he heard a sound like a jet engine taking off in his head.
That resulted in a CT scan. Which resulted in bad news. Joey had a brain tumor. A chaplain came into the room. His family members were crestfallen. Joey got quiet. And scared. A few days later, he had surgery, then there was an excruciating two-week wait to learn whether it was benign or malignant.
It was the latter. A Grade IV Glioblastoma, the most aggressive, fastest-growing form of brain tumor you can get. The rest of the day, he doesn’t much recall.
“That was kind of a blur, that day,” he said. “I was in the doctors’ office for eight hours, meeting with the various medical team members who would be assisting me going forward. And I don’t remember too much. I had to go back and read a ton about my diagnosis afterward, because I kind of zoned out during some of the discussions of what it was, and how we were going to fight it. So, it was kind of a day I don’t remember too much about, because it was so much at one time, it was overwhelming to get all that news at once.”
The prognosis for Glioblastoma is not good, if you want to know. Fifteen months is the average. But the remarkable thing about Cecil, and this mirrors the approach that Kuric took, and was a big part of their discussion on Friday, is that he doesn’t think in terms of months. These guys think in terms of today. Maybe tomorrow.
It wasn’t always that way for Cecil.
“I used to be a very pessimistic individual,” he said. “And if you have this happen, you can’t be pessimistic at all. You have to be 100 percent, ‘I’m going to beat this.’ If you’re not, you’re just giving it more fuel to try to beat you. It became a gradual thing to where I could not let any doubt in my head, because any doubt was giving it more fuel to fight me. And you have to have this mentality, because it reflects onto your family and loved ones around you. They already feel enough concern for you. The last thing they need is to see you feel down for yourself or feel sad about it, because then they’ll become even more concerned. So by having this mentality, it reflects to them that you’re doing all right, you can fight this and you’re willing to fight this. It became a gradual thing, you can’t just sit around all day and fight yourself. You have to have a positive mentality.”
This was the discussion, as the game waited. These two remarkable young guys, both of them 27 years old, talking just out of earshot of reporters and cameras, sometimes serious, but often laughing, smiling.
Kuric does this quite a bit. When he got back to the U.S. after his experience with a brain tumor in Spain, he had a box of letters and numerous messages on Facebook. From all over the world.
“More than you can believe,” Kuric said. “. . . People offering prayers, saying they had similar situations, asking for advice, offering advice. I had Facebook messages of support. It was unbelievable. I tried to do my best to help people out. But there’s only so much you can do, and you never feel like you’ve done enough.”
So Kuric is always trying to do more. But in Cecil, he found a guy who already had a game plan.
“I’m not sure you could handle it any better than how he seems to be,” Kuric said. “He sees the dark humor in what he’s going through. He’s got the right mentality. He’s having fun with what he can. But it’s a very difficult thing he’s going through, and he’s taking it in stride. He’s got that same focus on getting better. Whether he wants to be or not, he’s an inspiration. . . . Stuff sounds cliché until you go through it. We say stay positive. It’s a cliché. But it’s different for us. Our 'stay positive' is a whole different matter. For us, you stay positive so you don’t relapse into something worse. For us, it has meaning. We have an understanding, but he’s on a different level. He knows what he’s doing.”
Cecil is a big soccer fan and his fight against cancer has been supported by the Louisville City FC team and fans. He’s held a bowling event to raise awareness. He has a web site, lovemyjoey.com, where, if you’ll visit, you’ll discover that this guy can write, eloquently, about his journey through this challenge.
“A lot of times people get hung up on the fact that, if you have cancer, you don’t know how much longer you’re going to be around,” Cecil said. “And that’s the wrong mentality to have, because that’s based on fear. Will I be around in three years or five years? You can’t do that, because that’s out of your control to think that far ahead. All you can control is tomorrow, today, the different things you can do make sure that when you get to that next test or that next scan, you’ve done everything you can do to make sure that it’s in your favor. Instead of looking three months or six months down the road, you look at today, you look at tomorrow.”
Cecil’s last scan was two weeks ago, and it was clean. He’s now listed as “stable.” He’ll never be listed in remission, because brain tumor patients can’t be. They never get all the seeds. There’s always the danger that the tumor will begin to grow again.
The main treatment Cecil is undergoing is visible wherever he goes. It’s called OpTune. Straps of electrodes at each side of his head, sending electronic frequencies into his brain to target cancer cells, but not healthy ones. It’s the only real treatment available. He wears it 17-18 hours a day. It’s painless. If the device gets too hot, there’s an alarm. It got too hot a time or two outside at Blairwood Club. Inside a bowling ally, though, is a different story.
With Kuric winning the game of horse, Cecil joked that while Kuric is one of his favorite players, “Maybe some other U of L players might’ve taken it easier on me.”
Told that Cecil had said this, Kuric responded: “Ask him, when we go bowling, if he’ll take it easy on me. I think we’ll have a rematch next summer.”
They’ve booked it. Maybe even in Las Vegas, because Cecil missed a bowling trip there to have his surgery.
“This meant a lot to me,” Cecil said, of Kuric’s visit. “We were just going over the similarities of some of the stuff that we’ve been through, both having brain tumors. The things that we’ve seen. Even though we’re from two different situations in terms of diagnosis, we still had a lot of similarities that we could discuss, things from mentality to coming out of surgery, or different things we went through pre- and during surgery. It was interesting to see with totally different circumstances, how much we have in common.”
Kuric said the same thing, then paused and added that what Cecil is facing is a whole different ballgame. He’s seen a lot of people fighting for their lives, for a little more time, and he said all of it, his own brain tumor, the experience of working with others, has changed him.
“Going through it, at the time, I didn’t realize what was going on. But looking back, it was a blessing,” Kuric said. “I found out a lot about myself. It changed my entire mentality on my life and how I view it and how I live it. I view it as a blessing. I grew from it. Physically, mentally, and in my career. I think the way I handled it, when I say that I didn’t have a negative thought the entire time, I mean it. Not one time did I ever think, ‘I’m not going to play again. Could I die?’ Nothing like that. It was always, when can I get back, how can I start? So people kind of want to know how I got to that mentality and moved forward. It’s like I talked about with Joey, no matter what is going on with you physically, if you can get there mentally, you can get through it. Just trying to help people get to that same mentality. . . . But he’s already there.”
It’s a tough hand to be dealt. But even tougher to handle it with the kind of grace displayed when these two guys talked on Friday.
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