By Tim Baines, Post Media.
Originally published on: https://ottawasun.com/sports/hockey/cancer-twice-and-a-tornado-but-chris-kushneriuk-is-still-smiling
Battling cancer twice and having a tornado whip trees through his Ottawa home were just bumps in the road for Chris Kushneriuk.
He has beaten the odds, first by achieving success as a minor-league pro hockey player, then fighting off a disease that could have killed him. Now he’s more focused on what’s ahead than on the hurdles he has already crossed.
A hockey player whose skill toolbox was never quite full, he did the extra work and his compete level was always turned up full volume. That carries over into what Kushneriuk has done off the ice. Every time life deals him a bad hand, he tackles it head on, refusing to focus on the hows or the whys.
“I never sit sit back and think, ‘Why me?’” Kusheriuk says. “Life’s too short to dwell on circumstances. You might as well just move on, be happy and do the things you can do while you’re here.”
Kushneriuk started the 2011-12 season with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers before he was traded to the Bakersfield Condors. But something didn’t feel right. He’d wake up with aches that never seemed to go away. His energy was sapped.
“I played a really hard-nosed style of game,” Kushneriuk says. “I’m part of the forecheck, I kill penalties, I mix it up a bit. I figured it was wear and tear from the way I played. I got traded to Bakersfield, I got a concussion. I was throwing up before games.”
In the summer of 2012, with the pain persisting, he went to The Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus for a check-up.
“I thought I’d go in and get my back checked and I thought maybe I had a kidney stone,” Kushneriuk says. “They sent me in to do a number of different tests. In an ultrasound of my side, they saw a dark mass. They called me back within about two hours and did an ultrasound of my testicle. I still hadn’t put two and two together. They called me in for a CT scan of my abdomen. It was all in the same day. The nurse was crying. She told me it was bad. She thought I was a goner. She told me to call my parents.”
While waiting for the diagnosis from a doctor, Kushneriuk and his father, John, clutched each other by the hand. The great unknown was overwhelming. Finally, Kushneriuk received the news that hit like a sledgehammer: He had Stage 4 testicular cancer.
“The initial diagnosis wasn’t very good,” he says. “But I approached it like we were going to beat it. It didn’t matter how. I never prayed before, but I think I prayed in that moment. I was thinking, ‘Just put me in front of the right people to get me well.’”
He had surgery to remove the affected testicle the next day, followed subsequently by four rounds of chemotherapy, but he knew he still needed something else. He Googled “Best Testicular Doctor” and found Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, the specialist who had operated on cyclist Lance Armstrong, in Indianapolis. Kushneriuk needed two bone marrow transplants at a cost of $250,000. With fundraisers and lots of help from friends, family, the hockey community, even strangers, $150,000 was raised.
Then there was another surgery, this time at a cost of $100,000. Doctors removed 35 per cent of Kushneriuk’s liver, his left kidney, his gallbladder and lymph nodes in his abdomen … all in one procedure. During his recovery, he ran high fevers, felt pain in his lungs to a point where he struggled to breathe, had to learn to walk again and dropped 40 pounds.
“I remember the pain,” he says. “They cut you from the sternum all the way down below the belly button. There was so much pain from the internal wounds. They cut through the lining of the stomach and the abdomen. So it felt like there was no pain-killer that could take it away. Sure enough, like phenomenal nurses always do, they get you up and walking so you can get some blood flowing. I remember arguing, ‘There’s no way I can get up and walk, I’m telling you.’ They pushed me to do it. Sure enough, they got me walking in two days.”
He wanted to return to hockey, trained and got there. He returned to play for the Las Vegas Wranglers in 2013-14, then in 2014-15 for the Florida Everblades.
“That was like the moment of victory, getting back on the ice,” Kushneriuk says. “I was me again.”
Kushneriuk had played minor hockey for the Gloucester Rangers. He didn’t play AA until major midget. A forward, he played Tier II junior hockey in Kanata and Orléans and NCAA Division I hockey at Robert Morris, where he captained the team.
Early last January, he went for his five-year follow-up. There was less than one per cent chance of a reoccurrence, but testing showed another tumour somewhere in his body. He was told he could have the operation in Ottawa, but again opted to travel to Indianapolis at a cost of about $40,000.
“I’d made an appointment with (Einhorn). At the consultation, he brought me in to look at the CT scan, he showed me where it was,” Kushneriuk explains. “In the lower lobe of my right lung, there was a little nodule that was lighting up. He told me this was nothing compared to what I’d gone through before; the relapse was caught early. The way (the doctor) explained it was there were some bad cells that probably weren’t washed away with the chemotherapy; they were in an area the chemo couldn’t get to. For whatever reason, they’d started to cause problems. He said it wasn’t chemotherapy, it was strictly surgery. By removing the nodule, he said, we should see the elevated blood index go back to normal.”
Kushneriuk gets tested every two months and meets regularly with Ottawa oncologist Dr. Christina Canil, who he says has been “fantastic.”
“I just have one of those cases that’s so complex,” Kushneriuk says. “Dr. Einhorn is the leading expert in this. He singlehandedly changed the cure rate from five per cent to 95 per cent for early-stage diagnosis. I have this tremendous resource that now (Canil) has access to, too.”
Under head coach Martin Dagenais, Kushneriuk is an assistant with the Central Canada Hockey League’s Ottawa Jr. Senators. Last season, the team won the Bogart Cup title and the Fred Page Cup regional crown before coming up short at RBC Cup national championship in Chilliwack, B.C.
“I knew I had to stay involved in the game somehow,” Kushneriuk says. “To come back full circle did so much for me. It was the wise choice, it was something I wanted to do. I can’t see myself ever not being involved with hockey in some way or another.”
As if the cancer setbacks weren’t enough, a tornado ripped into his Prince of Wales Drive home on Sept. 21.
“I was in Rockland. I was about to go into our team meeting before the game against the Nationals,” he says. “My roommate at the time sent me a message and said, ‘You need to come home immediately. A tree just flew through the living room.’ I got in my car and drove back. The roads were blocked off. There were live power wires on the road, so we couldn’t really access it for the first few hours. It just wasn’t safe. It was super scary.
“I got to the house about four hours later. It was dark everywhere. There was no power. You couldn’t even access the front door. There were trees everywhere. We had five mature spruce trees on the lot and they all came crashing down. Four of them hit the house and one was in the neighbour’s driveway. You had to climb over these 100-foot mature spruce trees that were either resting on the house, inside the house or completely blocking access to it. One had completely crushed the back half of the garage. One had crashed through the roof. One went into the living room. One landed on our dining room addition, harpooned through the master bedroom. It was chaos. There’s a lot of damage.
“We had to relocate: close by, just off the Experimental Farm. My insurance company has been really helpful. The communication has been good. They were able to help me with getting into my temporary accommodations. There’s a significant amount of damage. I’m waiting to find out what the verdict is going to be on the house and its contents.”
Kushneriuk works at the Greco Fitness Upper Hunt Club location.
“I feel fantastic,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’ve been through anything at all. I was recently on vacation in Florida and I had people asking me about my scars. They were like, ‘Just out of curiosity, where are those from?’ It’s like I was in a knife fight or something. I’ve had the lung surgery, the abdomen surgery … I’ve got scars all over the place. So it’s not until somebody reminds me or an appointment comes up or somebody reaches out for advice that I ever think I was sick. I feel great. That comes with staying involved with hockey, skating, coaching and staying involved in the gym with a pretty intense workout regimen.”
“I was fortunate enough to get back to playing hockey. That was a big goal for me. When people go through something traumatic like this with their health, it’s important to set a goal. That, to me, was so therapeutic to get back out there and put everything behind me and leave the game on my own terms.”
Through everything that has happened, Kushneriuk is still smiling, thankful he can do the things he does.
“It was an up and down year,” he says. “But the fact (the Jr. Senators) won the championship was such a relief. I went from a negative start to the year to such a positive experience.
“The house got damaged, our stuff got damaged, but everybody’s OK, everything will be made OK. The loss of material goods is really nothing. It’s been tough, but I’m fortunate to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In some regards, it’s been somewhat of a good thing. The perspective the challenges have given me is you can’t spend all your time just working. You have to do things you love. This whole experience has shown me what things in life really matter.”
Born on Christmas Eve, Kushneriuk turned 32 last month. He plans to push ahead and not worry about the past.
“I think I’m just going to keep doing what I do,” he says. “I’m enjoying life with my girlfriend (Christiane), with my family, with my friends. I’m super content with where things are, despite some circumstances. My contractor, the insurance company say, ‘We know this is such a difficult time for you.’ I kind of laugh and think in my head, ‘No, it isn’t. You guys don’t know what a difficult time is.’ All that stuff is noise, it’ll go away.”