Coach Chris Forbes Battles Cancer,
Gunshot Wound & Prepares
To Climb Mt. McKinley
Originally printed in the March 18, 2004 issue of Collegiate Baseball
By LOU PAVLOVICH, Jr.
GREELEY, Colo. — Chris Forbes is living proof guts and determination can overcome the grim reaper.
The hitting coach at Northern Colorado University was told that he had 3-5 months to live and later 2-6 weeks of life expectancy after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Dec. 7, 1999 — Pearl Harbor Day.
His amazing will to live simply would not allow him to give up even though his 27-year-old athletic body plummeted from 170 pounds to 130 pounds in 3 ½ weeks while in Shawnee Mission Medical Center in Kansas. At the time, he coached for Johnson County Community College.
It all started with a swollen lymph node in his arm and later two secondary brain tumors were found which were inoperable.
If that wasn’t enough during his heroic battle with cancer, he was involved in a car jacking as a thug ripped open the driver’s side door, shoved a .22-caliber pistol in his side and demanded that he get out. In an instantaneous decision, Forbes stepped on the gas but was shot by the assailant. Blood gushed out of the coach’s abdomen.
He survived that ugly situation as well.
During his war against cancer, Forbes fired eight doctors and read everything he could on the subject, in addition to scouring the Internet for anything that would give him an edge in his fight. Treatments have taken him as far away as Los Angeles and Houston.
Incredibly, Forbes has now been officially in remission for four months. His weight is back to normal, and he has made plans to climb Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet, this summer (2004) as Leukemia & Lymphoma Society national fundraiser.
"Initially I found a swollen lymph node in my arm during October of 1999," said Forbes.
"I wasn’t really concerned about it at the time since I was young, had no health insurance and was an assistant coach trying to get a degree. I eventually went to our trainer, and hew as concerned about it. But I did nothing about it for a period of time since I didn’t feel sick. A couple of months later, I felt like I was coming down with the flu and had night sweats. At that time, the trainer ordered me to see a doctor.
"The doctor then had a biopsy taken, and on Dec. 7, it was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma which is a blood related cancer which attacks the lymph system."
Doctors immediately ordered an aggressive campaign to fight the cancer in his body.
"I was given radiation therapy five days a week. The treatments made me very sick and I threw up and couldn’t hold anything down. It made me very lethargic, and I had very little energy.
"Several weeks later, doctors found two secondary brain tumors which were inoperable. On Dec. 31, I was given three to six months to live."
Passes Out At Practice
Despite the constant barrage of radiation, Forbes continued to attend practices.
"But during one practice in February, I passed out and was taken to Shawnee Mission medical Center by an ambulance. I wound up staying there for 3 ½ weeks. While I was there, my weight dropped form 170 to 130 pounds. I was basically given a death sentence by the doctors who initially gave me 3-5 months to live and then later told my parents (Diane and Al) that I had 2-6 weeks to live because my condition had deteriorated so bad.
"I could barely stand at 130 pounds because I had done nothing in 3 ½ weeks. All I was doing was sleeping and being administered to. I felt like I was left to die in the hospital. Every morning at 4 a.m., they woke me up to run blood work. The routine I was getting into was very negative. It felt similar to being in prison. It was even tough just going to the bathroom. You had to ask permission to take a shower. I urinated in a bottle next to the bed. It was a horrible place to keep any sense of pride or dignity."
Then Forbes did something that shocked the nurses and doctors at the hospital.
"I refused to take this any more. I wanted to be in my own bed. So I started reading books, scouring the Internet and learning everything I could about my condition. If I was going to die, I wanted it to be on my terms. I didn’t want to be waited on hand and foot. I would rather be watching Baseball Tonight in my home.
"The most horrible part of the whole ordeal was watching my parents and my sister, Allison, suffer when the doctors told them that I would be dying. My sister came all the way from California to visit me. It really took a toll on all of them.
"When I checked myself out, I was becoming bitter and feeling sorry for myself. It was not healthy. I even fired the two doctors who were taking care of me."
Shortly after this episode, he was basically a human skeleton at 130 pounds and trying to work his weight back up and forcing himself to eat more. Three days after he left Shawnee Mission Medical Center, he went back to coaching at Johnson County CC even though it was difficult for him. But he wanted something that was lacking — a quality of life. The team welcomed him back with open arms.
He then changed physicians and went to the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. Doctors determined that he should go through chemotherapy. Basically four to five types of drugs are put into one IV unit and pumped through his veins.
"The chemo cocktail is absolutely horrible. As the chemicals go through your veins, they burn severely. It’s almost like hot liquid is going through your veins.
"I vomited quite a bit after treatments. I was usually given treatments four days a week and then took two weeks off. This was followed by four treatments a week which was repeated the following week and followed by two weeks off.
"I was going back and forth from the hospital for treatments. Normally they want you to stay in the hospital for a day after chemotherapy, but I wouldn’t have any part of it. The doctors were very upset at me, but I insisted.
"With all the vomiting I did, the best advice I received was from a pediatrician who advised me to drink Pedialyte. I drank gallons and gallons of this liquid after I was given chemotherapy treatments.
"Being back in baseball was important to me at this time. I had been so negative throughout this whole ordeal. With cancer, you are dealing with a marathon and not a sprint. I was trying to win a war in one day and not considering you should strive to win small battles to beat it. It took me two years to figure this out."
Held At Gunpoint
One day after one of his chemotherapy treatments at the hospital, he left at about 4 p.m. Since it was a beautiful day, he rolled down the window on the driver’s side and buckled up with his seat belt ready to eat Mexican food for dinner.
About 1 ½ miles form the hospital, he slowed down for a stop sign.
"The next thing you know, a guy is opening the door on my side and jamming a .22-caliber pistol in my side. He told me to get out but not in those exact words. I had a nanosecond to decide what to do, so I simply stepped on the gas. He shot me in the abdomen as I turned right to get away.
"Frankly, I was furious. He shot mea t point blank range, and my ears were ringing because of the loud discharge. The side of my body had a bad powder burn which really hurt. Blood was all over my shorts and the car. My first instinct was to turn the car around and try to run him down, put his body in the back seat and then drive both of us to the hospital," laughed Forbes.
"But my common sense kicked in as I drove to the University of Kansas Medical Center only 1 ½ miles away. I hit every traffic light, and it took me 15 minutes to get there. I parked next to the Emergency Room and walked through the door where a metal detector was located. The guard told me to step back, and I told him I didn’t think so, I had been shot. Fortunately, I didn’t loose a tremendous amount of blood and was treated quickly."
Forbes endured four hours of surgery.
"The only problem I had was that this is a teaching hospital, and there were co-eds there as they took off all my clothes. I was buck naked for a period of time before they covered me up a bit. It was really embarrassing."
Forbes said the gun shot blast blew a hole the size of a quarter in his side. He was fortunate in that he was twisting his torso as he was shot. The bullet missed his stomach wall by only 1/8 of an inch.
"Later that evening, the doctor who was treating me for chemotherapy came by to see how I was doing. Chemotherapy thins your blood, so he was concerned. My parents had gone back home to Colorado and had just got home when they were summoned with the bad news from a friend of mine.
"My mom couldn’t believe it when she was told. It was at this time that I made a decision to stop being negative about things and wonder why this was all happening to me. I finally came to the conclusion, ‘Why not me?’ I was determined to battle this problem and cancer with integrity and character and be pro-active in every respect."
Forbes checked out of the hospital the next morning and decided to go to Johnson County’s baseball game some 1 ½ hours away in Iola, Kan. With the help of a friend who was driving to the game since the team bus had already left.
When he got to the baseball field, nobody could believe he was there. Forbes insisted on coaching at third base, but he was ordered to stay on the bench for his protection.
After the game was over, he was driven back home — another 1 ½ hour drive.
Taken Off Chemotherapy
Because of the gun shot wound, he was taken off chemotherapy for the next month.
"I hired a nutritionist and also hired a personal trainer. I felt that if I was going down to cancer at the peak of my life, I was going to go down fighting. The nutritionist prepared a plan to gain my weight back.
"I ate every morning whether I felt like it or not. I drank protein shakes. Cancer survival was now going to be my job. I was trying to do everything I could to get my immune system in better shape.
"During the summer I started feeling much better and got my second wind. I was offered a job coaching with Kansas State University. Against doctor’s orders, I took the position as a defensive coach.
"While I was at Kansas State, I worked with a private physician in Kansas City. I took interferon to boost my immune system. The whole time I was interviewing doctors to find out what they could offer me in the way of treatment.
"As a coach, you want your players to buy into your system. I felt that I had to buy into a physician’s plan of treatment before I could embrace it totally.
"Here I was eating correctly, hiring and acupuncture expert for pain when going through chemotherapy and undergoing interferon treatments.
"During that summer, I went to Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles to see Dr. Black who was well known for his inoperable brain tumor treatments. A special beam of radiation was fired on the two brain tumors. The radiation cut them in half and caused them to die. I was incredibly lucky to get cancer when I had it because of the advancements like this. So I had one problem solved. What remained was cancer in the lymph system."
During the spring of 2001, he coached with Kansas State and drove back and forth from Kansas City for treatment.
"It was now part of my job dealing with cancer. I would drive in the morning to Kansas City to get treated and then get back to practice or games. It was very regimented. It became a real grind driving back and forth. Ultimately, I decided to move back to Kansas City later that summer and not go back to Kansas State. I still had cancer and was not getting better."
Forbes then learned about a treatment at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston.
"I went there for a consultation, and they found that my white blood cells were showing every indication of leukemia. Whether it was there the whole time or had just developed, they didn’t know. So they treated me with a pill called Gleevec, and it changed everything. The greatest thing about this drug is that it kills cancer cells but doesn’t harm normal cells like chemotherapy.
"I was so fortunate because this pill came on the market only a few months before I learned about this hospital. They had barely had it on the market when I arrived for the consultation. Clinical trials were so impressive that the Food & Drug Administration approved it within two weeks which is unheard of.
"The type of leukemia I have, called CML, is called the ‘sleeping tiger’ because it sometimes goes away and then rears it head again. I officially have been in remission since November of 2003. Hopefully it won’t be back. I feel absolutely great now."
Cost of Beating Cancer
Forbes said when his war with cancer started in December of 1999, he had no insurance and then found a policy through Humana with his pre-existing condition. As of early march, he said close to $800,000 has been spent on medical procedures to help him conquer cancer.
When all is said and done, he estimates the total bill will be approximately $1 million.
"Right now I pay $650 a month for health insurance. For on pill of Gleevec, it costs $1,800. I need on pill every day at the present time. Believe it or not, it cost more when it first came out.
"As far as traveling to Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and M.C. Anderson Hospital in Houston, the travel costs were taken care of by my parents. They have been fantastic throughout this whole ordeal."
Forbes said the brush with death was the best thing to ever happen to him.
"I wouldn’t change anything. This whole ordeal has changed me. It has taught me to never give up and learn as much as you can when situations like this take place. I also learned that doctors don’t know everything. That is why I fired eight of them. If you keep searching, you might find the answer to your problems. Some of the treatments for cancer haven’t changed for 45-50 years."
Forbes said his next big challenge in life is conquering Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North American at 20,320 feet. He is currently training to go on a climb in early June (2004) which will take him to the summit in 16-22 days if the weather cooperates.
If he meets his goal, he will be the first leukemia patient ever to make it. To get ready, Forbes is now training six days a week on endurance workouts with a special trainer.
"I’m not afraid of cancer any more. It is no longer a death sentence and doesn’t need to be. If we have perfect weather, four of us should be able to make the climb. It takes quite a bit of time to acclimatize the body. You are basically climbing the mountain twice form 10,000 feet at base camp to the highest camp at 17,000 feet. From there, you go the rest of the distance to the summit."
For Chris Forbes, life has been an amazing, non-stop journey.
(Forbes had hoped to use this climb to raise $100,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, but unfortunately he began to suffer from massive headaches shortly before he was to make his climb and he was forced to abandon the trip. Hopefully things will change again for him and he will be able to pursue his dream again of climbing Mt. McKinley. He is a coach at Northern Colorado.)