Keeping Cancer on the Defensive

NOVEMBER 08, 2018
Mathew Shanley
For an amateur athlete, the road to the National Football League is a rocky one. It’s filled with trials and tribulations; achievement and heartbreak; wins and losses.

Former NFL running back Tiki Barber has his mother to thank for the tenacity with which he navigated that journey. Geraldine Barber-Hale, the single mother of twin boys, set a shining example of how to persevere, even when bright sides seemed impossible to find.

Geraldine was diagnosed with bi-lateral invasive ductal carcinoma in late August of 1996 while Barber and his brother Ronde were both highly-touted members of the University of Virginia football team. In early September that same year, she underwent a double mastectomy, radical left, modified radical right; began chemotherapy treatments in October; and continued them through May of 1997. 

Today, Barber served as the keynote speaker at the 36th Annual CFS®: Innovative Cancer Therapy for Tomorrow, presented by Physicians’ Education Resource (PER), and shared exactly what being a part of his mother’s breast cancer journey has meant to him, and how he takes advantage of his celebrity and influence to spread awareness, and stress why it’s so critical for doctors to keep patients’ needs in focus.

"I’m an advocate for cancer research...but also to help when someone gets diagnosed with cancer," he told the packed audience. He applauded the health care professionals in the audience, saying "you guys are amazing." 

Barber was selected by the New York Giants in the second round of the 1997 NFL Draft. As a member of the team, he played in Super Bowl XXXV, and would eventually retire as the franchise’s all-time rushing and receptions leader, and second all-time in rushing touchdowns. He has since become known as a national media presence, working as a correspondent for multiple programs on NBC, including their Olympic coverage and The Today Show. He and television personality Brandon Tierney currently cohost a weekday morning show for CBS Sports Radio, Tiki and Tierney.

In his 2007 book, Tiki: My Life in the Game and Beyond, Barber uses the word indomitable to describe his mother. “Impossible to subdue,” he claims, is the perfect definition of her spirit.

Less than one week removed from her invasive procedure, Geraldine promised her sons that she would be in the crowd as the Cavaliers took on the Terrapins from the University of Maryland, who were ranked #22 in the country at the time.

“My mom never missed anything that my brother and I did, especially football when we got to the University of Virginia. I’m not just talking about the home games, which were still hours away from home; I’m saying she would drive to down Florida to go see us play, or up to Michigan.”

Geraldine was advised against the 2-hour drive from her front door in Roanoke to Scott Stadium in Charlottesville; nevertheless, her indomitable spirit won out. Tiki and Ronde did, too. With their mom in attendance, the Barber boys led the Cavaliers to a 21-3 victory over the rival college.

“(Ronde and I) didn’t think that she would actually do it because, obviously, it’s crazy that five days after having such an invasive, major surgery, she would show up. Come that Saturday afternoon, guess who was at Scott Stadium: my mom. She had her hat on, and she was cheering just like she always had.

“I think it’s typical of how she’s lived; she’s not going to let anything define her other than her love of (her family) and her love of life.”

Barber states emphatically that, throughout her treatment and recovery, his mother remained the rock of their family. Her fear of not living to see her sons graduate from college, she says, was “paralyzing.”  At the time of her experiences, Geraldine did not personally know anyone who had survived any kind of cancer. Her surgery temporarily restricted use of her arms; she was forced to adjust to her revised body. She was constantly fatigued, but as soon as she was able, she chose to work. She didn’t allow herself any other options.

It was her display of positive energy that inspired Barber to push forward, and to continue his career in football. It all started with her presence at that one game; her strength in that moment specifically, but also in the 22 years to come, left the brothers knowing, “our mom is going to be okay.”

Having a Giant Influence

Barber revels now in the role that he plays, with his as mother as a survivor and he as a public figure, he gets to tell her story and advocate for cancer patients everywhere.  “One of the beauties of my former job as an NFL player is that I developed an influence,” he said.

“One of the best parts about me spending my career in New York was that people paid attention to me, When I was playing, and even now, I have a voice that can draw awareness to important causes, cancer being one of them. Whenever I get the opportunity, whether it’s a cancer walk or a hospital visit or an opportunity to raise funds for cancer research, I jump into it.

“As we all know, cancer affects every family in the world. By raising awareness, even if you feel like you’re not making a difference, you’re making someone know that you care about them. That’s the most important thing that I can do.”

More than just raising awareness for people with breast cancer, Barber is hoping that he can raise awareness for seemingly healthy people with a history of the deadly disease in their families. While, obviously, fewer men than women are regularly diagnosed, the American Cancer Society estimates that 480 men die from breast cancer each year.

“After my mom’s diagnosis, and treatment and survival, it has changed the way I think about health for me and my family and my extended family,” he said. “The statistics are there: if you have someone in your family with cancer, it’s possible that you do, as well. Obviously, breast cancer is not prevalent in males, but it does exist. I think it changed me in that I became more aware of anything that might be wrong with me. Physically, I used to ignore things that I don’t ignore anymore.”
 
Teaming with Oncologists

For a running back, there are no teammates more valuable than those on the offensive line. The players stationed there–a center, two guards and two tackles–are responsible for blocking the defense, providing players like Barber the space to run free, and putting them in the best possible position to score, or succeed.

For a person with cancer, or a family member of one, there’s no teammate more valuable than an oncologist. Oncologists provide patients the resources necessary to overcome a cancer diagnosis, and information specific to a patient’s circumstances that simply can’t be found on the internet, he told the audience.

More than that, oncologists have the opportunity to relay this information in a way that will induce less panic than statistics and references read on the screen of a computer or smartphone. Geraldine credits her oncologist, William Fintel, MD, of Blue Ridge Cancer Care in Salem, Virginia for providing her with the information she needed, allowing her to have hope for her future.

“Oncologists are so important because as a patient, and from my perspective as the family member of a patient, you don’t know the answer,” Barber said. “You can go Google it, and you can look in these different places on the internet for more information, but until an oncologist tells you in a calming way that things are going to be okay, you won’t believe it. Having the proper information and an understanding of your diagnosis are the most important things that you can get, and the only way you can get them is by having trusted physicians and oncologists who will tell it to you straight.”

On Facebook recently, CURE magazine asked people what cancer-related issue they had the most difficulty finding quality information about. Among the responses, the most common was associated to experiences.

For the former running back, crossing the goal line at CFS would mean he was able to successfully communicate the importance of empathy. “Leaving dark holes that are filled with imaginations, positive or negative, is never a good thing,” he said. “Anecdotal stories of success (are critical), because having hope is the most important thing. Hope keeps you living when sometimes you feel hopeless.”

“Once darkness starts to creep in, everything seems to start falling downhill. Don’t let darkness creep in.”

Barber will openly admit things became scary for him when he learned that his mother had to undergo her double-mastectomy; he knew that it was bound to change her profoundly. Geraldine says it’s important that her son speak to people involved with cancer, because in one of the audiences listening to him, there may be some other mother’s child who needs to know that he or she is not alone.

In the time of his mother’s cancer, it was something else that she said to him that still resonates, more than two decades after the fact.

She said, “I have to get busy living, or get busy dying. I have a lot of life left to live.”

That is how she has lived her life, and how her family has lived it with her.
 

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