April 08, 2015
How a basketball coach beat colorectal cancer
BY Kellie Bramlet
Drew Long was surprised when he met his surgeon, Craig Messick, M.D. He hadn’t expected his doctor to be younger than him.
Drew, a father of three girls under 6 years old, hadn’t been diagnosed with colon cancer yet, but he’d been experiencing some colon cancer symptoms and was seeking a second opinion before undergoing surgery. Messick quickly stopped any fears or reservations Drew had. He turned to him and said, “I’m going to treat you like you’re my brother.”
It’s a moment Drew will never forget.
“I have two older brothers and an older sister. From the moment he said that, I knew that I wasn’t just a patient to him,” he says. “I totally trust him starting with everything he said after that and still do to this day.”
Recognizing colon cancer symptoms
Since his senior year of college, Drew had struggled with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. A former college athlete and the coach of the Air Force Academy men’s basketball team, Drew had always managed the disease through diet and exercise. But in September 2013, he started experiencing stomach pain and digestion issues that wouldn’t go away. He underwent a series of tests, but each one came back negative. His doctor sent him to the emergency room.
There, Drew underwent a colonoscopy. His red blood count was extremely low. He had been losing blood through his stool, the doctors told him. For three days, he waited, not knowing what was wrong or what would happen next. Eventually, a member of his care team spoke to him about scheduling a surgery. They wanted to remove his colon.
That’s when Drew decided to travel from his home in Colorado to seek a second opinion at MD Anderson.
A colon cancer diagnosis
At MD Anderson, Messick performed a sigmoidoscopy and a couple of biopsies. He scheduled the surgery to remove Drew’s colon a few weeks later. Drew went back home to Colorado to spend time with his family before coming back to Houston for the surgery. But a few days later, he learned his doctors wouldn’t be able to perform the surgery. One of the biopsies had come back positive. He had colon cancer.
Drew had always been an optimist. But at that moment, optimism seemed just out of his reach.
“There was that moment of kind of numbness,” Drew recalls.
But the numbness soon faded, and Drew became focused on what to do next.
Drew, who was originally from Houston, underwent 28 days of chemotherapy and radiation at MD Anderson in Katy. After that, Drew went home to see the end of the college basketball season. He was 50 lbs. lighter than when he had left.
In April, Drew came back to MD Anderson for his surgery. His colon was removed and replaced with an ileostomy bag.
Coping with colon cancer
A few weeks later, Drew met with Messick to hear his surgery results. He had started to feel a little better and was gaining some weight back, but he could tell by the look on Messick’s face that the news wasn’t going to be good.
“There’s no other way to say it, but there is cancer everywhere,” Drew remembers Messick telling him. They had found 18 tumors in his colon, and the cancer had spread to 22 lymph nodes.
Drew underwent four more months of chemo. His body responded well, and he experienced minimal side effects. His completed treatment in early September and went back to work on Oct. 1.
Today, Drew’s cancer-free, back up to a healthy weight and exercising every day. He returns to MD Anderson for his follow-up appointments every six months.
“Life has definitely changed with the ileostomy and getting accustomed to that. But other than a few tweaks in the daily schedule, I don’t think about it. It’s not something that I dwell on and say ‘Why me?’” he says.
“When it comes to dealing with cancer, it is what is it and you’ve got to seek the best care that you can. You’ve got do your part in staying healthy, eating right, exercising and surrounding yourself with people that believe you’re capable of overcoming it.”
I knew I wasn't just a patient to him.