Whenever a new doctor saw my diagnostic chart, the reaction was always the same. They’d look at it and then glance briefly at me, grim and serious, before turning their attention back to the chart. Then, feeling compelled to say something—to say anything—they’d summon the courage to make a pronouncement. My favorite was from my radiologist, who just looked me in the eye and said, “This sucks.”
That was all the way back in August of 2017. It was the beginning of the school year for my three teenagers and the beginning of my daughter’s senior year of high school. It was the beginning of Liverpool’s first Champions League campaign in many years. And it was also the beginning of my intimate relationship with radiation and chemotherapy.
I originally went to see my family doctor because of persistent heartburn and a shortness of breath. It would turn out to be a hernia, I remember thinking to myself, just like my father’s. But there was more than that, too—there was a stabbing pain in my lower right rib cage, a more urgent kind of discomfort.
My family doctor is a huge Barcelona fan, and he’s the single biggest booster of soccer in our small American town. Our kids grew up playing on local club teams together before graduating, together, to the local high school team. We’d even had all kinds of fun going back and forth in the buildup to the Philippe Coutinho transfer saga last summer.
“You know we’re going to get him,” he’d tease whenever we saw each other around town. He might have been more crushed than I was when, rather than another barb about that Coutinho, he was the one who had to give me my initial diagnosis on July 21st. I felt like I needed to hug him.
“Squamous cell carcinoma of the distal esophagus and metastasis of the liver.” That was the official diagnosis. The former is inoperable and the latter quite advanced, or so I’m told. Back in August, I was also informed—by more than one physician—that I was a dead man walking. Fortunately for me, my oncologist was not one of them.
“Doc,” I told him during our first meeting, “I only have one goal—I want to be there for my daughter’s graduation on May 25th.”
He never wavered in his response.
“That’s not going to be a problem,” he said.
It wouldn’t have crossed my mind a year ago—and I know I didn’t start to even think about the possibility of it until months later—that the Champions League Final in Kiev was scheduled for Saturday, May 26th.
I may not have been thinking about the Champions League final back in August of 2017, but from the moment Trent Alexander-Arnold scored Liverpool’s first goal against Hoffenheim in the qualifying round, I knew there was going to be something special about this team. Little did I know that Klopp and his “boys” would prove to be so much more. Thrilling. Uplifting.
I had always thought of miracles happening in compacted time—over seconds, minutes, hours. Maybe, at most, over a single day. I guess that comes from being such a huge sports fan all my life, having seen the Miracle on Ice, the Hand of God, the Music City Miracle, the Minneapolis Miracle. And, of course, Liverpool’s own Miracle of Istanbul. I’d witnessed each of them on television, all happening within the confines of single, time-managed sporting events.
But watching Liverpool’s Champions League campaign of 2017-18 was a long-form kind of miracle, woven like a tapestry stretched out over nine months as with each new, wonderful European night, their performances increased my belief in another Champions League final appearance. By the time Liverpool qualified for the knockout stages of the tournament, I was absolutely convinced that it was going to happen, and the experience of watching that helped to give me hope, at least for a time.
Then the bottom fell out.
My first round of combined chemo and radiation treatments conducted from August until early November was deemed a success. We had halted the progress of the cancer, which my oncologist estimated had only begun in April of 2017. From that point of origin in my distal esophagus just above the stomach, the squamous cell had grown to a length of two inches (5cm) by the time of initial diagnosis in late July. It had also pock-marked my liver like Swiss cheese during that four-month period. But by early November, the first goal of the treatment had been accomplished: we had stopped the train.
A new course of chemotherapy began in mid-November, with no further radiation, though after all they had put in my chest in the fall I’d probably still set off a Geiger counter five years from now. Using a different set of chemotherapy drugs now, the plan was to begin shrinking the cancerous cells, primarily in my liver.
But by Christmas I began to fall ill again. I had returned to my job, but by the start of the new year every day was becoming more of a struggle. Then the pain began, in my liver, increasing every day. My oncologist put me on low grade morphine in mid-January as the pain continued. In early February he ordered scans. They showed that the new chemo treatment wasn’t working. The cancerous cells in my liver, the ones whose growth was meant to have stopped, had each grown by the size of an English pea since November.
My oncologist immediately changed my chemo treatment, but it felt like the die had been cast. The entire month of February was a nightmare. What I ate, I couldn’t keep down. The morphine helped with the pain but was absolutely destroying my metabolism, and even maintaining my balance was becoming more and more difficult. By March 12th, I couldn’t hold down even the morphine, and every time I dipped my head below the horizon line I was nauseated. I didn’t think I would live to see March 13th.
Against all of that, on my television screen throughout the months of February and March, that miraculous Champions League run continued. Klopp had Liverpool performing better than any Liverpool team of the past 28 years. Every single game, Champions League or otherwise during those two months, was uplifting to me, and I simply can’t express what an impact each win had on my own well being. Sometimes, it really did feel as though the team and those performances were the only things keeping me alive.
So it became my miracle, their Champions League run and the promise of, just maybe, a final in Kiev. I wanted it. I craved it. I needed it to happen, as the weeks ticked by and each opponent became more of a challenge. When I did see that sunrise on March 13th, I knew I needed to get off the morphine—I needed to face my own challenges without its help. Two months later, it just might be the best decision I ever made.
After struggling just to get from one day to the next through January and February and into March, life has slowly become more manageable again with a less heavy-handed pain reliever, and a great deal of that pain has even gone away. And, following another scan last Thursday and with the results to come at my next chemo session, for the first time in 2018 I’m starting to feel cautiously optimistic about my health.
Liverpool’s progress to the Champions League final is all I ever wanted out of my miracle. Of course I care deeply if we win or lose now that they’re in it, but that’s not the point. Not really. You see, my miracle has already happened, watching this team over the weeks and months, from last summer against Hoffenheim through the group stages and knockout rounds and with a final in Kiev now just days away.
It’s a miracle that means I get to be there when my daughter receives her high school diploma on the evening of May 25th. And it means I then get to watch my favorite team compete in the sport’s greatest event the following day. That’s my miracle of Kiev.