It doesn’t have to be Easter for John Gunther and Mike Robertson to find comfort in their faith.
Every day, for better or worse, is an affirmation for these two men, friends who share much in common, including a love of baseball.
And also cancer.
Gunther, 54, is Sandia High School’s baseball coach. He is stricken with Stage IV colon cancer.
Robertson, 50, is a former Sandia baseball head coach. He has been worn down on multiple fronts in recent months by a serious throat cancer.
The men are not only friends, but former colleagues, as Gunther once was Robertson’s assistant with the Matadors.
They have also recently become cancer brothers, a fraternity they unwillingly belong to, but wear as a defiant badge of honor.
For both of them, the fight is ongoing. These two Matadors share an arena, each holding out a red cape.
“If I let this take over my psyche, then I’m waiting to die. And that’s not me,” Gunther said. “I’m working on getting better.”
The news of his cancer was a jolt to his axis. His father lived to be 92, and there was no real history of the disease in the family. An avid runner, Gunther did the Las Vegas Marathon in November, but by January, everything had changed. An early scan detected spots on his liver. Further tests revealed the cancer on his colon.
But here’s a twist: Gunther, who said he’d always been a spiritual man, made a very clear decision not to ask for his prognosis. Whatever time he had, three months or three years, would be spent proactively. There would be no concession speech.
“We said, ‘OK, let’s get the port in, and let’s get the chemo started,’ ” he said.
Even by cancer patient standards – and cancer patients are among the strongest, most resilient human beings you’ll ever meet – Gunther is remarkably hopeful. He not only is digging in against an advanced cancer, but is ambitiously optimistic that his fight can be won.
“My faith has grown exponentially in this,” said one of prep sports’ true gentlemen and one of its most likable guys. “In my mind, God is the greatest healer, and he can take care of me.”
Brother in arms
Robertson, too, is a man connected to his religion. His cancer, and subsequent treatments, often have been ruthlessly harsh.
It was last summer when Robertson, an Eldorado graduate, was having trouble swallowing. He saw his doctor. By October, a lump was discovered in his neck.
Surgery was presented as an option, but it was considered too risky. So Robertson opted for 30 days of radiation treatments instead.
The side effects were debilitating. He lost 75 pounds, largely because he went nine weeks without being able to eat, he said. He required daily IVs to sustain him.
Three weeks after the last radiation treatment – the procedure itself is both sobering and upsetting, as you can sometimes smell your own skin cooking – the lack of nutrients for his brain ultimately caused him to lose most of his vision and his ability to walk properly.
He had a 10-day stint at University of New Mexico Hospital, followed by a few days in a rehab facility. He slowly began to eat again, although the radiation to his throat left him without taste buds and battling overwhelming fatigue, on top of everything else.
But Robertson’s attitude very much mirrored that of Gunther’s. Robertson invested in the power of positive thinking and absorbed the support of those closest to him.
“The more you shut down, the more you feel like you’re losing,” Robertson said. It is crucial, he agreed, to not allow the cancer to make you a prisoner in your own body.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Robertson, wearing a Sandia baseball cap, said as the Matadors practiced in the background earlier this week. “Four things have kept me going: my faith, my friends, my family and the baseball community.”
This, of course, includes Gunther, who showed up not long ago at a fundraiser at a local church for Robertson, where Robertson learned for the first time that he and his former assistant were bound by a horrible disease.
“(On the day I was diagnosed), for just a while I had to be just (by myself),” said Robertson, who like Gunther, is a warm, welcoming personality who is extremely well liked. “I went back to work that day.”
The way he was brought up by his parents – his father is former APS athletic director and longtime coach Buddy Robertson – and his belief system were a needed crutch as he contemplated what lay ahead.
He is still walking very gingerly, but his strength is coming back slowly. Food and water, which used to make him throw up routinely for nearly 2½ consecutive months, are palatable again. He also endured three “mega” doses of chemo along the way, but there is pride in his voice as he says that he didn’t miss any work in his capacity as the state’s assistant superintendent for the Juvenile Justice Education system.
While Mike Robertson recovers, Gunther’s treatments have only just begun recently. It is chemo, every other Monday, and an infusion that continues for two additional days after he goes home, with a fanny pack connected to the port in his chest. It’s the latter part of those treatment weeks, such as this one, when he starts to feel miserable. He’ll go through a dozen such treatments.
Gunther said he had never had a colonoscopy until early this year. It is possible this could have been caught sooner, he concedes, if he’d had one when he turned 50, but the affable Gunther remains demonstrably upbeat and unwilling to do anything but focus on the road in front of him. He’s powerless to change what didn’t happen.
The healing for Gunther includes coaching the Matadors. Twice he’s led Sandia into the state finals (2012, 2013), although his son, Robert, is handling more responsibility with the team this season as his father undergoes treatments.
“It’s a damn good team we have going,” Gunther said. “I wanted to be part of something bigger than me, and this. To step aside would be a disservice. It is the best thing for me to be out here.”
He, too, has a wonderful group of friends and family and colleagues in his corner. A fundraising 5K/1K race is being organized for next Sunday called Gunther Strong, which begins at 9 a.m. at Bullhead Park (to register, visit www.ballcharts.com/shsmatadors).
“For myself, for sure, the athlete in us says, ‘I’m not giving in. This is my game to win,’ ” he said.
On Tuesday, the men got together at a local Village Inn. They laughed and chatted over milk and water for nearly an hour.
Cancer brothers. In a shared battle, and yet fighting separately.
Robertson is healing. To his eternal credit, Gunther is all but challenging his cancer to take his life.
“We’re all dying,” Gunther said pragmatically, but with a smile. “If my days are numbered, so be it. If I can be the best example I can for my peers, then I’ve done my job.”