Commentary

Drew family battles cancer together

Originally Published: November 7, 2011
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Homer Drew shuffled down to Janet's hospital room at the University of Chicago Medical Center with a gown on, gauze over the surgical wound below his belly button and a sense of urgency to see his beloved wife.

Janet lay before him, three catheters sticking out from her body after bladder cancer surgery. Her bladder was gone. Doctors took 32 lymph nodes and performed a hysterectomy as well.

On Sept. 9, Homer was diagnosed with prostate cancer. On Sept. 12, Janet -- his wife of 44 years -- was diagnosed with Stage 3 bladder cancer, found only because she had been to the doctor to check on a urinary tract infection.

"When we first learned about both of us, we were like, Why? You know, why now? Why at this time?'' said Homer Drew, who recently retired as Valparaiso's basketball coach.

Janet's surgery was on Sept. 30. Homer's was on Oct. 7. For three days, their stays at the hospital overlapped, just a few doors down from each other.

Homer had tried to postpone his procedure to take care of his wife, but his adult children insisted he not jeopardize his own recovery and ability to get rid of his cancer.

[+] EnlargeHomer and Janet Drew
Drew familyHomer and Janet Drew have been by each other's sides for nearly a half-century

Naturally, once he came out of his own surgery, the very first question he asked his son Bryce was about Janet's condition, not his own.

Bryce, who took over the basketball program at Valpo this spring, made a name for himself as a player when he hit the iconic buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lead the Crusaders over Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA tournament. It is a highlight that will be played for as long as there's an NCAA tournament. A truly unforgettable moment for the whole family.

But then there are the moments when the cameras are off. The family moments so deep and so personal that they're impossible to forget.

One of those moments came when Homer was able to stand after surgery and headed straight to his wife's room.

"He was in the room,'' Bryce recalled. "And he goes down to try to kiss her, but he can't because of his surgery and she can't really move because of her surgery. And so they can't kiss each other.''

There was a certain tragedy in that moment -- but also tenderness. His sister Dana, back home now after living abroad since 2000 while her husband played professional basketball, also saw the beauty in her parents' shared pain as they were eating a meal in their gowns.

"It was probably one of the most precious memories I will ever have and I'll cherish forever,'' said Dana Shaw, a mother of four. "Seeing them in their gowns, sitting, having dinner together in a hospital room. I mean there's something beautiful about it, in a sense that, in a marriage, you strive to have such oneness and a closeness. And just to see that 44 years of hard work and the ups and downs was really just picture-perfect at that moment that they were there for each other when they were both hurting and needed support.''

The odds of this occurring -- a couple receiving cancer diagnosis' within days of each other, surgeries separated by a week -- are obviously rare.

But cancer shows no favoritism. It shows no mercy. It doesn't know about timing and it doesn't discriminate. Economics play no role. Neither does race nor religion.

It was probably one of the most precious memories I will ever have and I'll cherish forever. Seeing them in their gowns, sitting, having dinner together in a hospital room. I mean there's something beautiful about it.

-- Daughter Dana Shaw

Homer and Janet are both 67. They are a family with a strong faith. And the grand retirement plan had been set in place just a few months ago. They were ready to spend time with their grandchildren, watch their son Bryce lead Valpo, jet down to Waco to see their other son, Scott, coach a potential Big 12 title team at Baylor.

And then it happened. The Big C.

Times two.

"It's like a day that just stayed the same for that whole month for us, like a nightmare,'' Homer said. "Where you wake up and you think, 'Oh, it was just a nightmare.' But it's not.''

Janet has had some complications since her surgery. She had a blood clot. She had an infection. Her fever finally subsided on Friday and she was released to go home for the weekend. Homer said the plan is to get rid of two of the three catheters and deal with just the one that will have a bag attached to collect her urine.

Then, once she's stronger, the dreaded chemotherapy will begin.

"I just think when I go home and I wake up it's all going to be like it used to be and I'll be able to go to my parents' house,'' said Bryce Drew, who raced the hour's drive to Chicago to see his mother in the hospital Wednesday night, on the eve of Valpo's exhibition game against Augustana the next day. "They're going to be active and they're going to be doing things. My mom is going to be cooking meals for us and just everything is going to be back to normal."

But that's only a dream for now. The reality is that "cancer is a big nightmare," Bryce said.


Visit the Drew household for a few hours and it's obvious how tight this family was throughout Homer's coaching career.

[+] EnlargeThe Drew Family: (from L to R) Scott, Dana, Janet, Bryce
Valparaiso UniversityThe Drew family (from left to right): Scott, Dana, Homer, Janet and Bryce

That doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of competition. Dana is considered by every member of the family to be the most competitive of the three children. There were two-on-two games outside and competitive Ping-Pong inside. Dana played four seasons at Toledo, where she would meet her husband Casey Shaw, a one-time NBA draft pick who played mostly in Italy the past dozen years.

"Basketball has always been a family event for us," Dana said, "and it's been a great bond and it's been something that's really taught us a lot of life lessons and built a lot of character that is definitely flowing into this time right now, with all the trials that we're experiencing."

Janet, as is so often the case with coaching wives, was at the center of it all.

"[Janet] is the anchor,'' Homer said. "She is the foundation of our family, without question. And she kept everything even-keel and did a wonderful job in raising our three children. She's very direct and very honest. So after games, when I would come home, I had a real critique waiting for me at home. We need to do this more. We need to play D. We need to rebound. What about so-and-so? But she's very analytical, so she's always been a great support system.''

Janet supported Homer's initial decision to retire in 2002. Scott Drew took over Valpo for one season before leaving for Baylor, where he's now in his ninth season. Since Scott took over the troubled Bears program at the beginning of the school year, it was only natural for Homer to step right back in. And when Bryce retired from professional basketball in 2005, he joined his father on the bench as an assistant coach.

This spring, though, Homer decided it was time to hang 'em up for good.

"I was ready to move on and do some different things and it would give me some time to go down to Baylor and watch Scott and be involved a little bit down there and be able to come back to Valpo,'' he said. "Janet and I wanted to do some things. We thought the timing was very good.''

And it was for a while. The spring and summer were perfect for the Drews.


Homer had always prepared his family for a possible cancer diagnosis, since his father had died of prostate cancer. He went in for his annual checkup and sure enough the biopsy on his prostate showed that three of the four zones had cancer.

"The PSA and the rectal examination are key for men, but they are only indicators,'' Homer said. "They don't tell you for sure if you have it or you do not have prostate cancer. That's why I hope as you get older, you need to stay on top of it [and get a biopsy if needed]. I read up a lot on prostate cancer. I was prepared.''

[+] EnlargeBryce Drew
AP Photo/John Gaps IIIThere were happier days in 1998, when Bryce and Homer were captured in one of the most iconic photos in NCAA tournament history.

Dana, who shares Homer's eternal optimism, heard the news from her father and figured he had this down pat. He would have the robotic surgery, recover after a while, and then be fine.

As for Janet, she had shown no signs of being lethargic in any way. Shortly before her diagnosis, she was at the Chicago half-marathon, cheering Dana on.

"I was with her,'' Homer said of Janet's doctor's appointment. "I actually went in when they did what they call a cystascope. And it projects on the screen. You can actually see the bladder and the veins and then, all of a sudden, we saw a mass -- a bloody mass. And so …"

Homer's voice trailed off.

"It really felt like something dropping out of the sky, out of left field," Dana Shaw said, "and just, it was very hard. Even to this day, it's still -- for me, it's still somewhat surreal.''

Bryce was on the road recruiting, constantly checking his messages to see if there was news on his mother's test. When he heard cancer again, and this time much worse than his father's, he said he couldn't move.

"It's definitely something that grabs you, you know, from the inside and you kind of get that sick feeling in your stomach,'' Bryce said. "You know, at times, it's -- sometimes you can feel yourself grasping for air, like sometimes it just hurts to breathe.''

Meanwhile, Homer was trying to deal with his own diagnosis while hearing about his wife's. One didn't come entirely as a shock. The other most certainly did.

"Devastated,'' Homer said. "Devastated is the word. You're kind of numb. And then, you don't know how severe it is until we get some follow-up examinations. You're just devastated, you know, and you go and you hug each other, and just you know, we'll fight this together. We'll fight this together.''

Homer is still recovering, but has seamlessly moved into his new position of caregiver.

"It might be the hardest coaching that I'll have to go through, seeing her and going through the surgery, and what they've had to do [to her],'' Homer said. "I mean, she's got three catheters in her body that come out of her body. She's been very brave, very courageous through all of this, to help beat the bladder cancer.''

He spent three nights bedside in her hospital room last week.

"To see how he's put this deal on the back-burner and to take care of my mom and to be strong the past few weeks, I don't think there's a book I could read or a movie I could see or anything that could impact my life more than what I've seen him do the last three weeks,'' Bryce said. "He's hurting, and he's still in pain and he should be resting and getting care, and yet he's putting that aside to help take care of my mom.''

No moment in their home lifted up his and Janet's spirits as when Scott surprised them both and flew home from Waco on Oct. 24 to spend the night. Scott is the one child who can't be here during this difficult process. He calls daily. He wants to be a part of the process, to share in the struggle, but he can't.

[+] EnlargeHomer Drew Crowd
Courtesy Jeff Lange, ValparaisoAt last week's exhibition game, the retired Homer Drew addressed the crowd at Valparaiso.

The community has rallied for both of them, though. Dana Shaw said seeing the outpouring of support for her mother has touched her greatly. On Thursday, Homer walked out onto the Valpo court that bears his name and thanked the crowd for all of their support. A constant stream of fans came up to him with handshakes and hugs.

It's all a little overwhelming for the family.

Bryce has had his private moments when he has broken down. There has been a lot of crying. A lot of prayer.

"Faith has gotten us through. No matter how difficult it is, we know that the master coach is going to be with us and help us,'' Homer said. "I have really felt his presence at 2 or 3 in the morning, in the hospital, and when she's in pain and discomfort, and we're just praying to have God help us get through this evening.''

Leaning on faith. Leaning on each other. It's what the Drews have done for all of these years.

Why change now?

"I'm just trying to live day-by-day now and every day I see him, I enjoy him,'' Bryce said of his dad. "Every day that I get to talk to him on the phone, it's a new perspective and it's really changed my whole thought of life.''

Bryce's head-coaching career begins Monday night, half a country away at No. 16 Arizona.

These aren't ideal circumstances, obviously. In what should be a time of celebration for the family, dad is recovering from cancer surgery and mom is in the battle of her life.

But don't expect a pity party from Homer and Janet. They'll be together, as they've been all these decades, watching the Crusaders on television -- proud smiles no doubt overcoming any pain, at least for a couple of hours.

"We've had 44 years together and have had very, very many blessed moments,'' Homer said. "And in our future, we're going to have, like I told her, we're going to have some blessed moments. We're still getting down to Waco. We're still going to get our travels in. We just have to delay it a little bit.''

Homer Drew, ever the eternal optimist. Ever the grateful servant. Ever the caring husband.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE