After beating cancer, Ottawa hockey player Chris Kushneriuk looks to resume his career
Chris Kushneriuk, healthy again after beating cancer
The last time we spoke with Chris Kushneriuk he was at the Indiana University Cancer Center awaiting stem cell treatments and chemotherapy.
It was early December, 2012, and Kushneriuk, a pro hockey player from Gloucester, had just been told by Canadian doctors he had about six months to live. Some Christmas present.
Kushneriuk’s supreme hockey conditioning, though it would ultimately prove a weapon, was no defence against the initial cancer, his body ravaged by what began as testicular cancer but which had spread to his liver, kidney and lymph nodes. Your basic nightmare scenario.
As he spoke by phone from Indianapolis, in the care of Lance Armstrong’s cancer doctor, Lawrence Einhorn, Chris was a few weeks away from his 26th birthday, still talking positively, convinced this was a battle he could win.
Happily, 14 months later we can report that Kushneriuk is not only alive and well, he’s been cleared to play hockey again and is looking to sign with an ECHL team in the near future. If we were to take out a classified ad on Chris’ behalf, it might read like this: Wanted, a roster spot for a player of unparalleled heart and will. Team-first type, leader, survivor. Ready to report immediately.
Small wonder that when Kushneriuk resumes his hockey career, he has a gift in mind for Dr. Einhorn.
“I’m definitely going to give him my next jersey, for whichever team I play,” Kushneriuk says. “He saved my life, he deserves a jersey.”
And then Chris laughs at the tradeoff. A jersey for a life.
The journey Kushneriuk took to arrive at this point is a story of personal triumph and modern medicine, but also a tale of friendship and community hockey support that made it possible for Chris to afford the type of bold surgical treatment that defied the initial doomsday prognosis.
Now training in Pittsburgh at his Alma Mater, Robert Morris University, Kushneriuk is grateful and invigorated by having gone a full year cancer-free, his odds of a relapse down to two per cent.
“I don’t even think about it,” Kushneriuk says by telephone.
“It’s amazing how people undervalue peace of mind. Every day waking up now, without having to worry about it, without having that burden on my mind, it’s absolutely wonderful.”
Renewed in spirit and body, it’s as though the ordeal never happened: the June, 2012 surgery in Ottawa to remove an infected testicle; the cycles of chemotherapy to which the cancer became resistant; then the bold step of committing to the best American medical care money can buy – stem cell treatments, bone marrow transplants, invasive surgery to internal organs, followed by blasts of intensive chemotherapy, and then months of oral chemo.
Regarding the eight-hour surgery in Indianapolis in March, 2013, Chris calls it a 4-in-1 procedure: 35 per cent of his liver was removed, and his entire left kidney, plus his gall bladder and some infected lymph nodes.
“Sometimes I wonder what is left in his body,” says Chris’ father, John Kushneriuk. “Did they put stuff back in after the operation?”
A young man of deep faith, Chris believes it was all part of a providential plan.
“I feel back to normal, I’m re-energized,” Chris says. “Yeah, I guess there’s a reason I’m still here.”
PAIN IN SIDE
When it all began, with some discomfort in his side as he finished out the 2011-12 ECHL season with the Bakersfield Condors, Kushneriuk had no idea what was at the root of it. He’d played through the pain, putting it down to the usual bumps and bruises of hockey, and his own rigorous style of play. At 6-feet, 195 pounds, typically topped with curly hair and an infectious grin, there wasn’t much Chris Kushneriuk couldn’t overcome.
Never the most talented hockey player, Kushneriuk only found success in the game through will and determination. He didn’t play as high as AA hockey in Ottawa until he had a growth spurt at 16, generating newfound speed, which helped him earn a spot on the midget Gloucester Rangers. Coached by Darrell Campbell, the Rangers reached the provincial championships.
Kushneriuk went on to play Jr. A hockey with the Kanata Stallions and Orleans Blues, before a stirring Division I career at RMU, where he captained the Colonials and was twice named the team’s most inspirational player.
In the pros, Kushneriuk spent parts of two seasons with the Wheeling Nailers - scoring an overtime winner in a Game 7 playoff series in 2011 - and then then split the 2011-12 season between Wheeling and Bakersfield.
The pain in the side was bothersome, but Kushneriuk was stunned in June of 2012 when he learned the discomfort stemmed from stage 4 testicular cancer, which had already spread to vital organs. It wasn’t until later that he asked for and received the grim diagnosis, vowing to beat the odds.
The physical toll of cancer, treatments, recovery, was one issue - the financial burden on the family another altogether. John Kushneriuk was out of work at the time of the cancer diagnosis and used up all of his life savings, about $145,000, to help Chris “get in the door” at the Indiana University Cancer Center. (John has since successfully received long-term disability support). Chris’ mother, Lise, stayed with Chris in Indianapolis at a furnished apartment provided by a faith-based charity near the treatment centre.
The final medical bill was about $340,000, and John Kushneriuk believes all loans will be paid off in a year. Fortunately, Chris’ guardian angels helped cover more than $120,000 through fund-raising efforts in Ottawa, the ECHL clubs in Bakersfield and Wheeling and via the RMU Colonials, who dedicated their entire 2012-13 season to Kushneriuk. The gesture seemed to charm the Colonials, who went on to their most successful season in the school’s nine-year Division I history. When RMU won the Three Rivers tournament for the first time, the players brought Kushneriuk’s game jersey onto the ice as part of the celebration.
Fittingly, Kushneriuk is back at RMU, practicing with the Colonials under head coach John Schooley, who had recruited Kushneriuk and once said of Chris’ early cancer diagnosis: “If anyone is going to beat this, it’s going to be him because of his fighting spirit.”
That fighting spirit or what John Kushneriuk calls his son’s “strength of character,” helped Chris forge his way back into playing condition, from the depths of being a 150-pound cancer patient, 45 pounds below his playing weight, to a 190-pound player again.
“It was scary how little I was – I could wrap my hand around my quadriceps,” Kushneriuk says.
Job one was recuperating from the invasive surgery.
“The liver rejuvenated after six weeks, which is pretty phenomenal, but within that six weeks your body is allocating every ounce of energy it can to regenerate that organ,” Kushneriuk says.
“I remember being so fatigued. And that’s why I was losing all my weight, my metabolism sped up so much that anything I could eat would just go to regenerating that organ. I was losing probably a pound a day.”
BACK ON SKATES
By the summer of 2013, Kushneriuk was back skating regularly in Ottawa, sharing the ice with Senators winger Chris Neil, one of Kushneriuk’s favorite players, and other NHLers. Claude Giroux, Erik Gudbranson and Michael Blunden were among the pros who supported Kushneriuk with “Krush Cancer” charity hockey games.
Chris’ father continues to be amazed by the “young people” who have helped his son.
“He still hangs out with the same kids he pretty much grew up with,” John says. “He played hockey with them down at the outdoor rink at Combermere. I’ve known them for years, but I’m so impressed by the quality of people they are.”
For the past several weeks, Kushneriuk has been undergoing a full training regimen, lifting weights four times a week, skating five times a week, plus a road run.
He’s hoping to catch on soon with an ECHL team, possibly the Wheeling Nailers, where his pro career began. With the NHL in hiatus for the Olympics, minor pro rosters are somewhat stable, but a single injury at a higher level can spark a chain reaction of openings below. Kushneriuk believes he can catch on with a club in need of a forward, and agent Chad Watkins is acting on his behalf.
Ideally, the 27-year-old Kushneriuk gets a spot before the next wave of college players becomes available.
“I can get back to what I was,” Kushneriuk says. “Right now, I feel like I’m in that spot.”
“From what I’ve been through, that should actually help my case – to show that when I get knocked down, I’m committed to getting myself back up.”
Kushneriuk is willing to sign a waiver freeing a team of liability should any cancer-related issues arise.
“I know that’s going to be in the back of their minds,” Kushneriuk says. “I just want them to focus on the hockey aspect of it, and not everything else I’ve been through.
“That’s all in the past now. If I’ve been cleared by the biggest expert in the world in the (cancer) industry, then they should have nothing to worry about.”
Next week, Chris and his Ottawa girlfriend, Christiane Lalonde, are flying to Bakersfield, California, to be part of the 10th annual Hockey-Thon on Feb. 22-23, a cancer fund-raising initiative that includes a Condors alumni game in which Kushneriuk will play.
If he can, Chris will finagle a skate with the Condors and perhaps even with the visiting Las Vegas Wranglers, who play the Condors on the Saturday. The Wranglers are another possibility for Kushneriuk, who is a pal of Vegas goaltender Mitch O’Keefe, of Almonte.
Part of Kushneriuk’s motivation to get back to where he was as a pro, is tied up in a mission to be a role model for others dealing with cancer.
“I just hope it leads somewhere with regard to hockey,” he says. “I know my whole story and what’s happened to me can be inspirational. I know I trained through through other people’s similar circumstances and situations. There might be someone out there that needs that kind of hope, and if I can give it by still being here, then that’s great.”
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