Chad Bettis’ return to Rockies is a story of love, not a story of cancer

The life-changing journey began at the Sanctuary Resort and Spa at Camelback Mountain, a luxury resort in Scottsdale,

The life-changing journey began at the Sanctuary Resort and Spa at Camelback Mountain, a luxury resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. where Chad and Kristina Bettis were married Nov. 21, 2015.

One year later, they returned to celebrate their first anniversary with a candlelight dinner and champagne, but there also was an unwelcome specter hovering over the young couple. A few days before, Chad had discovered a lump in one of his testicles, which led to a visit to his doctor.

That night, during their anniversary dinner, a phone call from his urologist confirmed the bad news.

Bettis, 27, an expectant father, had cancer.

Shortly thereafter, he received supportive phone calls from Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich, manager Bud Black and head trainer Keith Dugger. But it was Kristina who made sure love — not cancer — was the focus that night.

“My wife did a pretty good job of tricking me,” Bettis recalled recently with a soft laugh. “She was able to get my mind off it, at least for a little while.”

Of course Kristina was scared. She was expecting her first child in the spring, and now cancer had invaded her husband’s body. But she made a decision that night that set the tone for the trying months ahead.

“Let’s not be sad. Let’s celebrate our love and our future and our child,” she recalled. “I told Chad, ‘Let’s be happy, we’ll make it through this. I know you, I know how strong you are.’ I never doubted he would come back from this.”

Eight days later, Bettis had surgery to have one of his testicles removed in the hope that the cancer would be wiped out. Unfortunately, it spread, which he learned in March, making the road back steeper, more daunting.

But after nine weeks of chemotherapy, after the loss of his hair, after the birth of his baby girl, and after a month getting his arm in shape by pitching in the minor leagues, Bettis will return Monday to Coors Field to start in front of the home crowd against Atlanta.

“I’m trying to stay far away from imagining what it will be like,” Bettis said. “I don’t want the moment to be ruined, so I’m not going to project. Whatever the moment is, I will let it be that moment. Whether it’s amazing — claps from guys on the other team, cheers from the crowd — whatever it is, I’m going to enjoy it.”

Kristina will be in the stands, and so will their daughter, Everleigh Rae, born March 29, nine days after her father began chemotherapy.

The Rockies will celebrate too — especially young right-hander Jon Gray, who has become close with Bettis, the veteran of the Rockies’ rotation who took Gray under his wing.

“Chad always knew he was going to come through this,” Gray said. “He’s so positive. He’s got this great mind-set, not just on the mound, but in life.”

chad-bettis-and-8217;-return-to-rockies-is-a-story-of-love-not-a-story-of-cancer photo 1Photo courtesy of Chad BettisChad Bettis, his wife, Kristian, and their infant daughter, Everleigh at Bettis’ final chemotherapy treatment on May 16 at Pinnacle Oncology in Scottsdale, Ariz. Bettis began chemotherapy on March 20, nine days before his daughter was born.

A second setback 

Last winter, Bettis had every reason to believe 2017 would be his breakthrough season. Why not? He was Colorado’s ironman last season, finishing with career highs in wins (14), starts (32) and innings pitched (186). He was counted on to be the anchor of a young rotation.

His cancer seemed, initially, to be a traumatic yet manageable setback. Follow-up checkups were good, and blood work indicated he was free of cancer. He began working out soon after his surgery last fall.

Three days before Christmas, he was driving his truck through Texas with his dog, a chocolate Lab named Cy, riding shotgun.

“I was at a truck stop outside El Paso when I got a call from my oncologist,” Bettis said.  “He said, ‘Your blood looks good and your tumor markers are all in the normal range.’ I really took that to mean I was cancer free. I wanted to scream out. I started making phone calls because I wanted to tell people how great that moment felt.”

Life went back to normal.

Then, on March 10, in the middle of spring training, during a regularly scheduled cancer screening, abnormalities showed up. A subsequent biopsy showed the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Baseball was again put on hold, a chemotherapy treatment was prescribed and a baby was about to enter the Bettis couple’s lives.

The setback shook the Rockies — including Dugger, their head trainer since 2004. “Doogie,” as he is affectionately known, often is the players’ best friend and confidant. He was at Bettis’ side when doctors laid out a plan for him to beat cancer.

“The thing in baseball, in my profession, is that everyone comes to you, or the doctors, for answers,” Dugger said. “But in the real world, in the medical world, they don’t have all the answers.

“But you have to paint a positive picture, no matter what. You have to present it as a fight. Part of my job is to tell the kids to fight — whatever it is. I don’t downplay it, but I want to keep it calm for everybody, and I let the players know that there is quite possibly a great outcome.”

Kristina never lost faith that her husband would recover.

“Yes, it was difficult hearing that cancer had come back,” she said. “But we remained calm, put our faith in God and knew that he could bring us through this — and he did.”

chad-bettis-and-8217;-return-to-rockies-is-a-story-of-love-not-a-story-of-cancer photo 2Photos courtesy of Chad BettisChad Bettis and family on Coors Field. (Photo courtesy of Chad Bettis)

Dealing with chemotherapy

Bettis began chemotherapy March 20. He had 21 infusions spread over nine weeks. Doctors installed a port on the right-handed pitcher’s left side, under his clavicle, to make it easier for him to keep throwing — when he was up to it.

“I’m not going to lie. Chemo was tough, brutal at times,” Bettis said. “There were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed. … I started thinking, ‘OK, 21 treatments is now down to 19. Then it was 12, 11, then it’s 3-2-1. Then it was done. Then I could look back and say, ‘Wow, that was a lot of chemo!’ ”

Bettis maintained his weight at 210 pounds, but there were side effects. Between his first and second chemo cycles, he ran his hands through his hair while taking a shower and a huge chunk of hair fell out. The next morning, he shaved his entire head. Chemo took his eyebrows too.

“You do get a little self-conscious,” Bettis said. “You don’t look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh, man!’ It’s more when someone else looks at you and they are like, ‘Oh, man, are you all right?’ That’s when it hits you.

“I went really pasty white, and when I was going through my treatments or going up to the Rockies’ complex in in Scottsdale, you see people’s reactions and you think, ‘Do I really look that bad? Man, I thought I was doing all right.’ ”

As funny as it might sound, Everleigh Rae Bettis came into the world at a perfect time.

Bettis’s schedule called for daily chemo treatments March 20-24, then another on March 28. The next day, the couple thought, would be perfect for Everleigh’s arrival. It was her due date, and the start of the longest stretch before Dad’s next treatment.

So Kristina planned to have labor induced that day, but instead went into labor naturally.

Bettis said he never doubted he would play baseball again. Besides, he had more important things on his mind.

“I was worried, because my immune system was down because of the chemo,” Bettis said. “Would I be able to hold my little girl? Would I be able to stay in the hospital? Was I risking infection? Would I be able to be there for my wife at a time that’s really special?”

Yes, he was. Bettis slept on a hospital couch for two nights, constantly checking on his wife and his baby girl.

“My chemo nurse, Angela, said, ‘Chad, you aren’t even going to worry about yourself anymore,” Bettis recalled.  “She was right. Everleigh’s birth completely took the attention off me, which was really nice. It’s what I needed.”

Bettis’ final chemotherapy treatment was May 16. Doctors told him there was a 90 percent chance the cancer wouldn’t return. He rejoined the Rockies on June 6 and began working out.

“I know Chad has said that coming back to us was a huge boost for him,” Gray said. “But it was huge for us too. … When he’s in the clubhouse, everybody feels better. He has that kind of effect.”

Bettis embraced his starts for Double-A Hartford and Triple-A Albuquerque with the gusto of a rookie. At Hartford, he bought dinner for all of the Rockies’ prospects at an upscale Italian restaurant.

True to his nature, Bettis is quick to thank those who helped him through his ordeal. Bridich and Black were in frequent contact, as were former Rockies pitchers Jason Motte and David Hale, along with their wives. Reliever Adam Ottavino’s wife, Brette, gave Kristina new-mother advice.

When Bettis throws a pitch on a major-league mound for the first time since he was diagnosed with cancer, his wife will give thanks.

“It was definitely a difficult journey, but we all have choices in this life,” Kristina said. “The cancer was out of our control, but we chose to look at the other side.

“We thought, ‘Good, we caught this early, so let’s be thankful.’ When you think that way, when you focus on the good, it changes everything.”

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