April 13, 2006
Eric Nygard was excited for his senior year at Washington State University.
The Wenatchee, Washington, native had just finished his best year of competition for the Cougar track and field team with a lifetime-best time of 52.42 seconds in the 400m intermediate hurdles for eighth place at the Pacific-10 Conference Championships. He'd gone on to run at the NCAA West Regional meet in both the intermediate hurdles and on the fifth-place 4x100m relay team.
His wife Jenny graduated from WSU in May 2005 with a degree in kinesiology. Eric spent the summer preparing to take the Dental Admissions Test in order to pursue his dream of being a dentist.
When fall conditioning started for the Wazzu track teams, Eric was fully committed, feeling strong and anxious for the spring competition.
"Being a Pac-10 finalist and scorer, of course we were looking forward to Eric improving on that and run down maybe in the low 51s (seconds), and his training early on indicated he was on pace to do that," Cougar hurdles coach Mark Macdonald said.
But then, in October, Eric was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had surgery shortly thereafter. All signs indicated to the medical personnel that the surgery had removed the cancer. He would have monthly appointments for two years to make sure the cancer had not returned.
As Christmas approached, Eric and Jenny were counting their blessings for Eric's good health when they received a call December 15 telling them they had been selected to be the adoptive parents of a baby girl who was expected to be born in January. Just five days later, little Aubree Nygard was born and in her new mother and father's arms December 29.
"It's really amazing and everybody thinks God had a hand in all this because a little over a year ago my wife and I both felt like we needed to get approved for adoption and we had no idea why," Eric said. "We went though all the paperwork and in June of 2005 we were approved. Then it's just kind of a waiting game for the phone call. It's been pretty eventful."
Eric endured this senior year detour with grace and dignity. Cougar Assistant Coach Mark Macdonald, asked Eric to speak at the January 11 track team meeting.
"I was on my way to campus to talk to the team because Coach Mac had asked me to talk about everything I had learned from cancer when my doctor called me," Eric recalled. "In that phone call, the doctor informed me that the cancer was back, and that was a real shocker. I wasn't expecting to get that phone call. It really surprised me and it was kind of an ironic time."
True to his word, Eric did address the team that day and shared with them his story and then his devastating news. Needless to say there were tears flowing in that room.
"Because of the magnitude of the illness, it overrode any disappointment of the missing Eric on the athletic side," Macdonald said. "We skipped right over that to just worrying about him."
Eric's urologist in Pullman, Dr. John Keizur, sent him to see cancer specialist Dr. Sushma Pant in Lewiston who was surprised the cancer had come back. Dr. Pant referred him to Dr. Craig Nichols at Portland's Oregon Health Sciences University, who Eric said is "one of the best doctors in the world at treating this type of cancer." Dr. Nichols treated Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist, seven-time Tour de France winner and testicular cancer survivor.
"I had read lots of books, and read about Dr. Nichols and seen pictures of him and I had heard he had gone to Portland from Indiana," Eric said. "Dr. Pant sent me to him and since I knew his background, that gave me a little boost of confidence."
Just a week after hearing the cancer had returned, Eric flew to Portland and met with Dr. Nichols.
"It didn't take Dr. Nichols very long to prescribe the treatment, he pretty much knew what he was going to do by the time I had started talking to him," Eric said. "I asked him several questions about whether it is possible for me to stay in school and he said everybody is different and most people don't feel like doing anything. So he kind of gave the decision back to me."
Eric returned to the Palouse and began nine weeks of chemotherapy administered in three-week cycles, with four to five-hour daily treatments in Lewiston, Idaho, every day of the first week and then Tuesday-only treatments during the second and third weeks in Pullman. His mother and mother-in-law took turns coming to Pullman, driving him to Lewiston and helping with baby Aubree.
Though the chemotherapy treatments are extremely exhaustive, Eric is still taking two classes on campus where he only attends class once a week and switched two of his other classes to online. Graduation will either be August or December of this year and he is thankful that his classes at WSU gave him the knowledge to fight the cancer.
"At least I know what's going on with my body," Eric, a biology major at WSU, said. "I know what they are giving me and what it is doing to me. If I didn't have that background knowledge I'm sure I would be studying and trying to figure out what is going on with my body. I think it's been a good thing to have a little knowledge."
The chemotherapy treatments, costing $1000 per day of treatment, ended the last week of March. Eric faces more tests, CAT scans, x-rays and at least two-years of monthly blood tests. Then for three years after that, Eric will be checked every three to six months.
"We have Molina Blue Cross insurance and they have been really good and really helpful," Eric said. "The state is helping to ease what the insurance doesn't cover. We had a little bit of money saved up for a rainy day but we didn't expect it downpour like this."
Eric feels that everything has worked out better than he ever expected, including the cancer.
"I got a type of cancer that I can be cured of unlike other types. The success rate is amazing; it's between 94 and 98 percent recovery. And in the 1970s it was less than 10 percent," Eric said. "There has been amazing success and another comforting thing is Dr. Nichols has been one of the pioneers of the success. He knows what's going on. That puts my mind at ease."
Daughter Aubree, now performing all the miracles a baby can provide with smiles and giggles, has also been a big boost for Eric and Jenny.
"She's a little sweetheart and has made this thing so much easier since we don't know if we will be able to have kids after this," Eric said, referring to the sterility factor from chemotherapy. "Having her in our lives has totally eased the burden and eased our minds of the thought of someday being able to have kids. It's been really good for my wife Jenny because she's been busy and preoccupied with Aubree all the time and she hasn't had time to sit and stress and worry about me."
Always committed to being in top physical condition, Eric has missed his track workouts but his treatments have left him completely exhausted during the past few months.
"I don't know if it's very realistic because I don't know if my body will have recovered by then but I would like come out and be part of beating the Huskies," Eric said. "As a senior have the final hurrah."
Coach Macdonald would love to see Eric compete again.
"He's respected by everybody on the team because he works so hard. The attitude and tone he sets at practice is even more valuable than what he was doing on the track. He has come back to practice and his goal is to run in the Husky dual meet," Macdonald said. "In talking to Eric, we don't want it to be some token charity performance. He wants to contribute in some way. And I think that is realistic. If he can get out there and do a real performance instead of just limp around the track, that is going to be our goal."
Eric knows the Cougar track team has been supportive both emotionally and financially by selling black wristbands with a quote in yellow lettering that Eric selected from Charles Beard, "When it's dark enough, you can see the stars."
"I love the wristbands. I was really flattered when I first saw them and didn't know what to say. They mean a lot," Eric said. "I really appreciate my teammates and friends who have been so great and so supportive through all of this. They have been coming by to visit, calling and taking good care of me, I really appreciate that. I'm proud to be a Cougar."
Eric, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) who served a two-year mission in South Africa, professes a silver lining to his bout with cancer.
"It's flattering that God trusts me and loves me enough to allow me to go through something like this," Eric said. "I really think trials and things that we face really help us become better people. This has helped me come closer to God. I have learned more in a shorter amount of time, in the last few months, than ever before in my life. Just because of the situation, just because of everything I have been facing. In my mission work I learned and grew in other ways but this has really refined me a lot. I think I am a better person now than I was two months ago."