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Fighting with kicks and punches

Posted Nov 17, 2017

Inside Brittany and Rees Crosby's courageous battle with stage 3-C ovarian cancer

GREEN BAY – All eyes were locked on the kicker, though few truly saw him. Beneath the helmet and salt-and-pepper stubble on his face, Mason Crosby’s stoic expression offered little insight into his thoughts this past January in Arlington, Texas.

The pressure was at its peak with a trip to the NFC Championship Game at stake. As the Packers’ longtime kicker and native Texan traced his steps backwards, the reverberations of 93,000 fans inside AT&T Stadium hit a crescendo.

Crosby had close to four minutes to ponder the biggest kick of his career – from the moment Jared Cook pulled down a miraculous 36-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers to when Green Bay’s field-goal unit lined up for the 51-yard game-winning attempt with only 3 seconds remaining.

Crosby already had hit from 56 yards a few minutes earlier and then again from 51, only to find out Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett had used a timeout before the snap in an attempt to ice him.

The Packers half-expected it. The Cowboys, the top seed in the NFC playoffs, had nothing to lose. Why not see if you could get into Crosby’s head a little?

If they only knew.

“To the casual fan, it’s a nerve-racking moment,” said Ben Haas, the co-chair of the Lombardi Cancer Foundation and a close friend of Crosby’s. “But I remember sitting in my living room thinking, ‘My God, he’s in his home state, he has his entire family there, and nobody knows what he and his family are going through right now.’”

Back in Georgetown, Texas, Rees Crosby wasn’t concealing his emotions as well as his brother, the elder by five years. Unable to make the three-hour trek to Arlington, Rees and his wife, Brittany, followed the drama from their couch with her parents, Robert and Gwen Glover.

Nine days out of the hospital, Brittany remembers only bits and pieces of the day. A medley of heavy pain medication blurred the in-game developments other than the final moments.

Watching on a slight delay online, Rees’ phone buzzed nonstop with text messages as the game drew to a close. He didn’t know what it meant nor did he wish to find out.

With clenched fists, Rees toned out the world and began to replay the same ritual he’s performed before each of Mason’s kicks dating back to the University of Colorado.

“All right guys, good snap, good hold, good kick,” Rees said to himself. “And I’ll usually say something for Mason right at the end.”

As Rees finished his routine, veteran Brett Goode finally released the snap to holder Jacob Schum. Crosby – wearing a teal bracelet on his wrist few noticed during the game – powered the ball inside the left upright to seal the 34-31 victory.

As Mason collapsed into a ball of emotion on the field, Rees shrieked so loudly it launched the couple’s two dogs, Tucker and Tilly, into five-alarm hysteria.

Brittany laughs when recalling the moment. The barks and yelps cleared the fog of chemotherapy for an instant, a brief reprieve from the most challenging month of her life.

It was a good day – maybe the best day – among many trying episodes. Yet, her battle had just begun.


“Punch Cancer in the Face”

No one could make eye contact. That was the first sign the news wasn’t good.

Seated next to the Crosby brothers’ older sister, Ashley Fraser, a nervous pit formed in the bottom of Brittany’s stomach as Dr. Vu Nhu Nguyen entered the room.

With family and friends in tow, Dr. Nguyen took a seat at Brittany’s side, clutched her hand and delivered the life-altering verdict in a calm and comforting tone.

“Sweetheart, I hate to tell you this, but you have cancer,” Dr. Nguyen told her.

Ovarian cancer. The words hit the family the hardest. It couldn’t be. She’s only 27. Strong, willful and independent, Brittany was in impeccable physical condition. At least, she had been before an overnight bug on Oct. 7 turned into a dizzying nightmare.

Brittany expected to melt into a puddle of tears, but didn’t. Instead, relief washed over her. After months of sickness with no answers, she finally had a diagnosis, a goal.

Consultations with a dozen doctors and countless trips to the emergency room had solved little. First, it was her gallbladder. No, maybe it was a blood clot in her lungs, an ulcer, a dislocated rib, diverticulitis, a gluten allergy, celiac or Crohn’s disease.

They did CT scans, MRIs, endoscopies and blood draws. All to no avail. Brittany was sent home each time with the certainty her illness wasn’t life-threatening.

Her body told a different story. Brittany’s situation deteriorated. Full after one or two bites, she brought plain chicken and sweet potatoes to Thanksgiving dinner. It was the only food that agreed with her.

She hit bottom on the couple’s bathroom floor soon thereafter. Unable to keep anything down and doubled-over in pain, Brittany refused to go back to the ER after four unenlightening visits over a one-week span.

The next day, Brittany reported in a wheelchair for a checkup with her gastroenterologist, unable to walk with a bucket accompanying her everywhere.

“My GI doctor was like, ‘What are you doing? I’m admitting you right now,’” Brittany said. “The two weeks between that and my diagnosis, I don’t really remember. I had to have Rees sit down with me and tell me everything that happened.”

No one suspected ovarian cancer, and why would they? Brittany had no family history other than her grandfather’s prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer is almost unheard of among women Brittany’s age. According to Cancer Treatment Centers of America, two-thirds of women diagnosed with it are older than 55.

It wasn’t until a chance meeting with Dr. Nguyen, filling in for her other doctor on holiday vacation, they found something after a two-hour review of her scans.

Unlike TV medical rom-coms where the large mass appears clear as day on an X-ray and is removed in time for next week’s episode, Brittany’s reality was more complicated. Her stage 3-C ovarian cancer consisted of a “bazillion” dust-sized tumors.

Surgery was performed two days later at Scott & White Medical Center in Temple, Texas, but did little to improve her condition. Chemotherapy was needed and fast. Instead of waiting the customary three weeks to begin treatment, Brittany’s first session of chemo came six days after surgery, the first of three she received in the hospital.

An online fitness coach, Brittany was in peak physical condition at the time of her diagnosis. Hooked up to a nasogastric tube, she didn’t eat for 14 days and couldn’t drink anything for eight. Her 5-foot-2, 118-pound body didn’t have weight to give, but cancer took it anyway.

Unable to stand independently, her weight was measured and monitored from her bed. Doctors said Brittany weighed 97 pounds at her lowest point after surgery, but even that might have been a generous estimate.

There was a small cot in the room for Rees to sleep on, but it received little use. Most nights were spent watching Brittany, praying for her to regain her strength.

“It’s tough whenever you see your strong, in-shape wife go to below 100 pounds and can’t sit up without you moving her,” Rees said. “That relationship changes. She became completely dependent on me, which for an independent woman, is kind of weird. It redefined us as a couple.”

That definition came in the form of a phrase and a promise: “Punch Cancer in the Face.” It became a motto that powered her through 24 rounds of chemotherapy over the next 5½ months.


Ties that bind us

The pregame texts started as mostly a joke. Given Mason’s ever-serious nature, it was Rees’ way to get his older brother to stay loose and lighten up before games.

He often quotes “Stepbrothers” and likes to pen silly, light-hearted manifestos about Mason needing to harness the power of the “noble Sasquatch” behind each of his kicks.

It’s a practice the two have performed for 15 years through Crosby’s college and NFL career, and even Rees’ days playing soccer at Division III Hardin-Simmons.

“I just try to get him to goof around a little bit,” Rees said. “Whenever I feel he needs something like that, I’ll send it.”

Occasionally, the texts take on a serious tone. The younger brother will quote scripture or send a paragraph or two meant to inspire Mason before a big game.

The Packers’ playoff game in Dallas on Jan. 15 was one of those days, and with Mason now a decade into his career with the Packers, Rees knows the exact time to text him while the team bus is en route to the stadium.

Thirty days after Brittany’s surgery, Rees’ message to Mason almost prophesied what was to come that day.

“Greatness is not this wonderful, esoteric, elusive God-like feature that only the special among us will ever taste,” Rees wrote. “It’s something that truly exists in all of us. It’s very important to believe you are the one who can achieve greatness.”

The words hit home for Mason, who was wearing a teal silicone bracelet their mom, Karen, had delivered to him with the words “We Stand Together” engraved on the side, a sign of support for both ovarian cancer and Brittany.

He’d actually worn it the week before during the Packers’ NFC Wild Card game against the New York Giants, but no one could see it with Crosby needing a long-sleeve shirt to shield himself from the 14-degree game-time temperature.

Inside AT&T Stadium, however, it was there for all to see. When Crosby nailed the game-winner, it brought out a bevy of emotions for Mason, his family and friends at the stadium, and Rees, Brittany and her family back in Georgetown.

In “typical Mason” fashion, Crosby didn’t tell anyone he was going to put the bracelet on. He just did.

“I had no idea he was going to wear it for the game,” Brittany said. “When he brought some press to it and gave a name to it, that was special. We don’t get a lot of public support. For most, all cancer is pink. People don’t even realize there are other types. So seeing Mason support me in that way and get the word out about this was huge.”


Brittany’s cheering section

The balloons, care packages and cards flooded Brittany’s hospital room faster than they could keep up. Rees brought them home every few days, covering the couple’s dining-room table, only to find another wave of well wishes arriving the next day.

As word spread of Brittany’s diagnosis, Team Fit Foundation created a Facebook page to support her, while her personal team, Team Uplifted Fitness, took over her job responsibilities for six weeks of her recovery.

A “Punch Cancer in the Face” GoFundMe page was established for Brittany, raising more than $30,000. Friends and family pooled resources to hire a housekeeper to clean their house while she underwent chemotherapy.

A meal train was established where families would sign up to bring Rees and Brittany meals every few days. The ladies who teach Zumba where Rees works at the Georgetown Park and Rec Department created a fundraiser, while Rees’ best friend, Blaike Woodruff, put together a T-shirt intuitive.

The women in Brittany and Rees’ family all painted their fingernails teal to support Brittany, and the men painted their thumbs for the duration of her chemotherapy treatments.

But perhaps the best memory Brittany forged was her family and friends all going wig shopping with her when she first started losing her hair.

“I think I have the world’s biggest and best cheering section,” Brittany said. “My entire family wore wigs out with me – mullet wigs and ridiculous stuff. I never wore it again. I just went bald, but it was good to see their support no matter what you’re going through.”

Chemotherapy was difficult. The doctors originally estimated she’d require 18 weeks of treatment, but her tumor marker wasn’t getting as low as they wanted and six more weeks were tacked on midway through.

Every Friday, she would make the 45-minute drive to Temple. On most weeks, the pre-meds and infusion took two hours. Every three weeks, however, Brittany would get a triple dose with two other drugs, one of which she was allergic to. That process took twice as long.

“It was a bittersweet thing to walk through those doors of the treatment,” Brittany said. “I knew it was coming and I knew a couple days later I’d feel like hell, but I knew what the alternative was and I’m not down for that.”

Rees, who works Sunday through Thursday, didn’t miss a treatment. For each trip, the Crosbys took one of the boxing-round cards Brittany’s high-school friend made for her and took a photo during her treatment.

Like everything in their five-year marriage, the process started seriously but the pictures quickly took on a humorous life of their own. The nurses eventually put them in their own corner of the clinic because of the laughter they generated.

“Brittany found a gown and gloves and pretended to give me chemo one time,” said Rees, recalling her 17th treatment. “We’d be standing on things, get our nurses involved and have props. It got out of control.”

The drugs and steroids had their side effects. There were a few times when Brittany wouldn’t sleep for 72 hours. Rees remembers waking up at 3:30 a.m. and finding Brittany on their living-room couch, in the midst of reading a book cover-to-cover.

It was therapeutic for Brittany. She also started writing more during that time, posting most of her thoughts on social media. She dove into her work to help escape from reality, if only for a short time.

“I did a lot of writing and I actually kept working through chemo,” Brittany said. “I absolutely love my job so much. It was a great distraction from all the crappiness. I could pour into other people’s lives and help them and their issues, and help them solve them versus just focusing on what I was going through.”


No coincidence

This is why the battle against cancer – all cancers – means so much to Mason Crosby.

Before Brittany’s diagnosis, Mason and Rees already lost one grandmother to the disease roughly five years ago, with their other recently beginning her own battle with breast cancer.

Holding his 1-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, in his arms during a recent news conference announcing the Packers’ partnership with the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation and Bellin Health for the Packers vs. Cancer campaign, Crosby has firsthand experience of how the disease can affect families.

A portion of the fundraising efforts included the sale of a Packers/Vince Lombardi-themed cancer awareness hat available in the Packers Pro Shop, with $5 from each hat sold going directly to the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation.

“I wake up every morning and look at my kids and look at my family, and think about the people affected by cancer and so many other things,” said Crosby, who co-chairs the Lombardi Foundation with Ben Haas. “I’m thankful for my healthy family, but then also the people who are helping raise money and fight this, and the doctors, to know if someday one of my kids is affected or we’re affected, that we will have the tools and the people around to help us fight it.”

Crosby’s involvement began shortly after he was selected by the Packers in the sixth round of the 2007 NFL Draft. What started as a small invitation to play in the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic grew into a leadership role with the organization.

The foundation has raised more than $19 million for cancer research and care since its inception, and become a passion project for Mason and his wife, Molly. His parents and Rees have all participated in the Lombardi Golf Classic, as well.

After finding out about Brittany’s situation, Mason immediately reached out to Haas to help them gather more information and options to tackle the disease.

It was through Mason’s NFL connections, Rees and Brittany were then introduced to former NFL kicker Billy Cundiff and his wife, Nicole, who run “Colleen’s Dream,” a foundation specifically targeting ovarian cancer prevention and awareness.

It’s named in honor of Cundiff’s mother-in-law, Colleen Drury, who passed away in February 2013 after a five-year battle with stage 3-C ovarian cancer. Brittany is scheduled to speak at the organization’s annual gala this upcoming year.

Brittany also became a supporter of Kick Ovarian Cancer, an organization and support group meant to raise the profile of the deadly genetic disease.

“It’s amazing what he’s been able to be a part of,” said Rees of Mason. “Like really? A cancer foundation? And now Brittany has cancer and you’re able to provide us with all this information.

“None of it happens coincidentally. Mason has been more than helpful with everything. Not just awareness or cancer-related things, but also life in general. He’s been a great brother and brother-in-law.”


“I won’t let this steal my joy”

This past year has taught Brittany and Rees to enjoy the brief moments of normalcy, spontaneous adventures and little victories throughout the ups and downs of cancer.

On June 9, Brittany achieved her first goal in ringing the bell in the lobby of the Temple Cancer Center after completing 24 rounds of chemotherapy and having her Cancer Antigen 125 level, or tumor marker, drop to 29.

At the time she was diagnosed, Brittany’s marker was at 580. It should be between 0-35. Although the level eventually increased again, she and Rees enjoyed three weeks of falling into the “no evidence of disease” category.

“Ringing that bell to be done with chemo was – there are no words to describe it,” Brittany said. “I immediately broke down in tears. Rees kind of had to catch me. We had all of my chemo nurses there. It was such a relief knowing to be done with chemo for a while. That was amazing.”

The battle isn’t over. There is no remission with the disease. It’s something Brittany will have to continue fighting the rest of her life.

Last week, her CA 125 marker returned to 239 and the Crosbys were sent back to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Further tests showed the re-emergence of tumors, requiring Brittany to go back on chemo treatments. The silver lining is she only has to go once every four weeks – and probably won’t lose her hair this time.

As her hair has returned so has her zest for the outdoors. Instead of sitting on the couch and quibbling about minor things, she and Rees strive to “live life on purpose.”

That’s what they did on Oct. 8 when they attended the Packers’ game against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium with the rest of the Crosby family. Ten months after not being able to walk, Brittany proudly made the summit to their seats and looked down at the field in amazement of how far she’d come.

Wearing a Jordy Nelson jersey – they won’t wear Mason’s No. 2 out of superstition – Rees and Brittany joined Mason, his parents, his sister, Ashley, and her children, Whitman and Karlyn, for a special family reunion after the game.

“It’s taken its toll on them, but through it all with their faith, they’ve just been so positive,” Mason said. “That’s the kind of stuff that is so motivating in seeing them and their mindset every time they have a hiccup. They just do what it takes and do it together. They’re a good example of what it is to have faith and continue to fight this together as one.”

Brittany has developed an endless line of friendships through her battle. Earlier this year, she went to a retreat in Montana, Camp Mak-A-Dream. Sixty women afflicted with ovarian cancer attended. Brittany was the second youngest.

One of the best friends Brittany has met, Mandi Chambless, was diagnosed at the same stage and exact same age as Brittany. She’s been cancer-free for nine years now.

Her co-workers also have been a source of strength. When Brittany underwent scans this week, one of the women she works with routinely but had never met in-person made the 4½-hour trip to show her support – unicorn T-shirts and all.

While the days are more peaceful in the Crosby household today, sleep still escapes Rees at times. It’s the feeling one only experiences after fearing for months that your spouse’s eyes won’t open again.

As Brittany sleeps soundly, however, Rees watches with admiration. The girl he met in second-grade homeroom has become a woman capable of tackling anything head-on.

“We don’t see our marriage as 50/50. We see it as 100/100,” Rees said. “You go from that almost being taken away a little bit and you have to step up. You have to stay positive.”

To stay positive means to weather everything life throws at you, and for Brittany, that’s another battle. Before she restarts chemotherapy next week, Brittany and Rees will be back at Lambeau Field this weekend for the first time since Thanksgiving 2015.

So much has changed since then. She’s a different person than the last time they visited Mason in Green Bay. While Brittany knows the statistics, she remains committed to punching ovarian cancer in the face.

Giving up has never been an option. She didn’t cave at her lowest point in the bathroom last year and wasn’t deterred when doctors threatened to stop chemo treatment due to low white-blood cell counts.

Her mission now is to create more awareness for the disease, reminding women testing for ovarian cancer isn’t included in their yearly exams. It’s important to listen to your body and notice the signs.

Cancer has shown Brittany the true meaning of strength, and through every battle, every adventure, she knows she’ll have Rees by her side.

In sickness and in health.

“I will not let this steal my joy – I repeat that over and over, especially in the hard moments,” Brittany said. “It’s taken our ability to have our own children. It took my muscles and the physical body I had before. It took my hair and my comfort in life. But I have control over not letting it steal my joy. I know I most likely have a shorter lifespan than most others, so why waste it in a pity party?”


Fun day at Sea World on Sunday! Love being with family! #shamu #SeaWorld

15 Likes, 1 Comments - Rees Crosby (@rees.crosby) on Instagram: "Fun day at Sea World on Sunday! Love being with family! #shamu #SeaWorld"


 
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