Bettis is ex­pected to re­turn to the Rock­ies this week

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Patrick Saun­ders

The life-chang­ing jour­ney be­gan at the Sanc­tu­ary Re­sort and Spa at Camel­back Moun­tain, a lux­ury re­sort in Scotts­dale, Ariz., where Chad and Kristina Bettis were mar­ried Nov. 21, 2015.

One year later, they re­turned to cel­e­brate their first an­niver­sary with a can­dle­light din­ner and cham­pagne, but there also was an un­wel­come specter hov­er­ing over the young cou­ple. A few days be­fore, Chad had dis­cov­ered a lump in one of his tes­ti­cles, which led to a visit to his doc­tor.

That night, dur­ing their an­niver­sary din­ner, a phone call from his urol­o­gist con­firmed the bad news.

Bettis, 27, an ex­pec­tant fa­ther, had can­cer.

Shortly there­after, he re­ceived sup­port­ive phone calls from Rock­ies gen­eral man­ager Jeff Bridich, man­ager Bud Black and head trainer Keith Dug­ger. But it was Kristina who made sure love — not can­cer — was the fo­cus that night.

“My wife did a pretty good job of trick­ing me,” Bettis re­called re­cently with a soft laugh. “She was able to get my mind off it, at least for a lit­tle while.”

Of course Kristina was scared. She

was ex­pect­ing her first child in the spring, and now can­cer had in­vaded her hus­band’s body. But she made a de­ci­sion that night that set the tone for the try­ing months ahead.

“Let’s not be sad. Let’s cel­e­brate our love and our fu­ture and our child,” she re­called. “I told Chad, ‘Let’s be happy, we’ll make it through this. I know you, I know how strong you are.’ I never doubted he would come back from this.”

Eight days later, Bettis had surgery to have one of his tes­ti­cles re­moved in the hope that the can­cer would be wiped out. Un­for­tu­nately, it spread, which he learned in March, mak­ing the road back steeper, more daunt­ing.

But af­ter nine weeks of chemo­ther­apy, af­ter the loss of his hair, af­ter the birth of his baby girl, and af­ter a month get­ting his arm in shape by pitch­ing in the mi­nor leagues, Bettis will re­turn Mon­day to Coors Field to start in front of the home crowd against At­lanta.

“I’m try­ing to stay far away from imag­in­ing what it will be like,” Bettis said. “I don’t want the mo­ment to be ru­ined, so I’m not go­ing to project. What­ever the mo­ment is, I will let it be that mo­ment. Whether it’s amaz­ing — claps from guys on the other team, cheers from the crowd — what­ever it is, I’m go­ing to en­joy it.”

Kristina will be in the stands, and so will their daugh­ter, Ever­leigh Rae, who was born March 29, nine days af­ter her fa­ther be­gan chemo­ther­apy.

The Rock­ies will cel­e­brate too — es­pe­cially young right-han­der Jon Gray, who has be­come close with Bettis, the vet­eran of the Rock­ies’ ro­ta­tion who took Gray un­der his wing.

“Chad al­ways knew he was go­ing to come through this,” Gray said. “He’s so pos­i­tive. He’s got this great mind-set, not just on the mound, but in life.”

A sec­ond set­back

Last win­ter, Bettis had ev­ery rea­son to be­lieve 2017 would be his break­through sea­son. Why not? He was Colorado’s iron­man last sea­son, fin­ish­ing with ca­reer highs in wins (14), starts (32) and in­nings pitched (186). He was counted on to be the an­chor of a young ro­ta­tion.

His can­cer seemed, ini­tially, to be a trau­matic yet man­age­able set­back. Fol­low-up check­ups were good, and blood work in­di­cated he was free of can­cer. He be­gan work­ing out soon af­ter his surgery last fall.

Three days be­fore Christ­mas, he was driv­ing his truck through Texas with his dog, a choco­late Lab named Cy, rid­ing shot­gun.

“I was at a truck stop out­side El Paso when I got a call from my on­col­o­gist,” Bettis said. “He said, ‘Your blood looks good and your tu­mor mark­ers are all in the nor­mal range.’ I re­ally took that to mean I was can­cer free. I wanted to scream out. I started mak­ing phone calls be­cause I wanted to tell peo­ple how great that mo­ment felt.”

Life went back to nor­mal. Then, on March 10, in the mid­dle of spring train­ing, dur­ing a reg­u­larly sched­uled can­cer screen­ing, ab­nor­mal­i­ties showed up. A sub­se­quent biopsy showed the can­cer had spread to his lymph nodes. Base­ball was again put on hold, a chemo­ther­apy treat­ment was pre­scribed, and a baby was about to en­ter the Bettis cou­ple’s lives.

The set­back shook the Rock­ies — in­clud­ing Dug­ger, their head trainer since 2004. “Doo­gie,” as he is af­fec­tion­ately known, of­ten is the play­ers’ best friend and con­fi­dant. He was at Bettis’ side when doc­tors laid out a plan for him to beat can­cer.

“The thing in base­ball, in my pro­fes­sion, is that ev­ery­one comes to you, or the doc­tors, for an­swers,” Dug­ger said. “But in the real world, in the med­i­cal world, they don’t have all the an­swers.

“But you have to paint a pos­i­tive pic­ture, no mat­ter what. You have to present it as a fight. Part of my job is to tell the kids to fight — what­ever it is. I don’t down­play it, but I want to keep it calm for ev­ery­body, and I let the play­ers know that there is quite pos­si­bly a great out­come.”

Kristina never lost faith that her hus­band would re­cover.

“Yes, it was dif­fi­cult hear­ing that can­cer had come back,” she said. “But we re­mained calm, put our faith in God and knew that he could bring us through this — and he did.”

Deal­ing with chemo

Bettis be­gan chemo­ther­apy March 20. He had 21 in­fu­sions spread over nine weeks. Doc­tors in­stalled a port on the right-handed pitcher’s left side, un­der his clav­i­cle, to make it eas­ier for him to keep throw­ing — when he was up to it.

“I’m not go­ing to lie. Chemo was tough, bru­tal at times,” Bettis said. “There were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed. … I started think­ing, ‘OK, 21 treat­ments is now down to 19. Then it was 12, 11, then it’s 3-2-1. Then it was done. Then I could look back and say, ‘Wow, that was a lot of chemo!’ ”

Bettis main­tained his weight at 210 pounds, but there were side ef­fects. Be­tween his first and sec­ond chemo cy­cles, he ran his hands through his hair while tak­ing a shower and a huge chunk of hair fell out. The next morn­ing, he shaved his en­tire head. Chemo took his eye­brows too.

“You do get a lit­tle self­con­scious,” Bettis said. “You don’t look in the mir­ror and go, ‘Oh, man!’ It’s more when some­one else looks at you and they are like, ‘Oh, man, are you all right?’ That’s when it hits you.

“I went re­ally pasty white, and when I was go­ing through my treat­ments or go­ing up to the Rock­ies’ com­plex in Scotts­dale, you see peo­ple’s re­ac­tions and you think, ‘Do I re­ally look that bad? Man, I thought I was do­ing all right.’ ”

As funny as it might sound, Ever­leigh Rae Bettis came into the world at a per­fect time.

Bettis’ sched­ule called for daily chemo treat­ments March 20-24, then an­other on March 28. The next day, the cou­ple thought, would be per­fect for Ever­leigh’s ar­rival. It was her due date, and the start of the long­est stretch be­fore Dad’s next treat­ment.

So Kristina planned to have la­bor in­duced that day, but in­stead went into la­bor nat­u­rally.

Bettis said he never doubted he would play base­ball again. Be­sides, he had more im­por­tant things on his mind.

“I was wor­ried, be­cause my im­mune sys­tem was down be­cause of the chemo,” Bettis said. “Would I be able to hold my lit­tle girl? Would I be able to stay in the hos­pi­tal? Was I risk­ing in­fec­tion? Would I be able to be there for my wife at a time that’s re­ally spe­cial?” Aware­ness. Rock­ies pitcher Chad Bettis is work­ing to boost aware­ness of tes­tic­u­lar can­cer af­ter fight­ing his own ninemonth bat­tle with the dis­ease. »

Yes, he was. Bettis slept on a hos­pi­tal couch for two nights, con­stantly check­ing on his wife and his baby girl.

“My chemo nurse, An­gela, said, ‘Chad, you aren’t even go­ing to worry about your­self any­more,’ ” Bettis re­called. “She was right. Ever­leigh’s birth com­pletely took the at­ten­tion off me, which was re­ally nice. It’s what I needed.”

Bettis’ fi­nal chemo­ther­apy treat­ment was May 16. Doc­tors told him there was a 90 per­cent chance the can­cer wouldn’t re­turn. He re­joined the Rock­ies on June 6 and be­gan work­ing out.

“I know Chad has said that com­ing back to us was a huge boost for him,” Gray said. “But it was huge for us too. … When he’s in the club­house, ev­ery­body feels bet­ter. He has that kind of ef­fect.”

Bettis em­braced his starts for Dou­ble-a Hart­ford and Triple-a Al­bu­querque with the gusto of a rookie. At Hart­ford, he bought din­ner for all of the Rock­ies’ prospects at an up­scale Ital­ian restau­rant.

True to his na­ture, Bettis is quick to thank those who helped him through his or­deal. Bridich and Black were in fre­quent con­tact, as were for­mer Rock­ies pitch­ers Ja­son Motte and David Hale, along with their wives. Re­liever Adam Ot­tavino’s wife, Brette, gave Kristina new-mother ad­vice.

When Bettis throws a pitch on a big-league mound for the first time since he was di­ag­nosed with can­cer, his wife will give thanks.

“It was def­i­nitely a dif­fi­cult jour­ney, but we all have choices in this life,” Kristina said. “The can­cer was out of our con­trol, but we chose to look at the other side.

“We thought, ‘Good, we caught this early, so let’s be thank­ful.’ When you think that way, when you fo­cus on the good, it changes ev­ery­thing.”

Stephen Spill­man, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Right-han­der Chad Bettis, mak­ing a re­hab start for Triple-a Al­bu­querque this month, may pitch Mon­day for the Rock­ies.

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