Rob Long Says 'I Can' Kick Brain Cancer
"I am as Strong or Stronger than I was Before This"
Elite athletes often feel invulnerable. Sure they can suffer an injury on the field, but otherwise they are in prime shape and health.
So it isn't surprising that Rob Long dismissed the chronic headaches he was having for months. The four-year starting punter on the Syracuse University football team was in great shape, and he was used to facing big opponents. He saw the headaches as a minor distraction, an inconvenience, but little more.
And Rob had big goals: He was aiming for the NFL.
Toward the end of the season, however, the headaches became almost constant and Rob's girlfriend Jacqueline insisted that the then 21-year-old consult the team trainer.
When the headaches persisted, the team doctor sent Rob to get an MRI.
"I didn't see anything on the MRI," says Rob who was accompanied by the trainer who pointed out the problem to the young man. "A massive white spot took up about a fourth of my brain. That is when it hit me that this was serious … that it was real."
A native of Downingtown, Pa., Rob returned to his parents' Chester County home and scheduled an appointment with David W. Andrews, MD, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia. That is, instead of getting ready for his final collegiate football game – Syracuse's first bowl game in six years against Kansas State at Yankee Stadium in New York.
Despite the daunting situation, Rob remained positive.
The scans of the tumor revealed it was encased and had not shot tentacles into the young man's brain. Rather, it was pushing against the healthy tissue and causing the headaches and balance/coordination problems Rob had experienced throughout the season.
Dr. Andrews, with his long experience as the chief of the Division of Neuro-Oncologic Neurosurgery and Stereotactic Radiosurgery at Jefferson, thought the images were a hopeful sign. The only way to determine whether the tumor was benign or malignant was to take it out and examine its cells.
On December 14, the day after he turned 22, Rob, with his head shaved and prepped for surgery, was wheeled into the OR for the hours-long operation by Dr. Andrews. The surgery went well. Two days later with a large S-shaped scar on the side of his head, Rob was ready to go home. He remained positive, hoping that he would soon be able to pursue his NFL dream.
The following Monday, just five days before Christmas, he was back at the Brain Tumor Center of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson for a post-op checkup and to learn the results of his pathology report. Rob expected the appointment would be a mere formality, and he would soon be preparing to work out for pro teams.
He'd already been through so much and the signs were positive.
The pathology report told a different, terrifying story. Rob had a grade III anaplastic astrocytoma. It was cancer. The standard prognosis for a grade III tumor of this kind is usually three to five years.
Rob was floored. Rob's mother collapsed to the floor.
Rob needed a moment to gather himself. He walked down the hall alone to gather himself. Rob returned after a few minutes ready to fight.
He asked Dr. Andrews what the next steps were for him. He would need to undergo six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy – so any thoughts of showing off his punting abilities to pro scouts, of being drafted by his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, were pushed into the background. The NFL dream, however, never left Rob's mind.
Amid the gloom that filled the room, Dr. Andrews offered a glimmer of hope. Yes, this was a grade III tumor; yes, it was the dreaded cancer; yes, the average prognosis is three to five years; but Dr. Andrews had seen the tumor, he had held it and his experience and research told him that all grade IIIs are not the same.
Rob's tumor had not encroached into his brain's healthy tissue; rather, it pushed it aside. In the language of Dr. Andrews research, Rob's tumor was expansive not infiltrative. And as he and his colleagues wrote in a 2008 paper on grade III anaplastic astrocytomas, Rob had what Dr. Andrews believed was a subtype of this tumor that "has a considerable survival advantage." Dr. Andrews shared the story of another patient with a similar tumor, a competitive motorcycle racer, who was doing well and still racing 12 years after his surgery.
Rob could get back to his workouts, but because his brain was still recovering from the surgery, Dr. Andrews ordered the football player refrain from contact drills. The exercise would help when he came back to Jefferson after the holidays for the radiation (five days a week for six weeks) and chemotherapy.
In late March, Rob returned to Jefferson for an MRI. He had recently worked out for four NFL teams, including the Eagles, and was hopeful that despite everything he might still be drafted. But, he needed to learn the results of the scan. Was he cancer free?
On his way back from the appointment, Rob sent out a message on Twitter to his many fans and followers using the language of the new social media that we can all understand:
Back from @TJUHospital and the MRI looked great and the tumor is gone! So happy and thankful for everything! Now to the #NFL #staypositive.
The tumor was gone! Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy from Jefferson's multidisciplinary team of experts with vast experience in treating brain cancer had beaten the odds. A 22-year-old man regained his ability to dream.
Of course, there remained the not insignificant matter of getting onto an NFL team. All Rob wanted was a chance. So on draft weekend, he watched and waited. Would an NFL team call his number? None did. In fact only two kickers were chosen that weekend, neither was a punter.
Still, Rob held out hope that he would be able to sign with a team as an undrafted rookie. Then the NFL owners locked out the players, shutting down the game and throwing Rob into limbo. When the dispute was finally resolved in July and NFL teams opened training camps, Rob continued to wait and hope for a chance. In August that chance finally came with the call from the Cleveland Browns to come to Ohio for a workout.
Unfortunately, the Browns went in another direction, but Rob hasn't given up. He continues to work out and to kick as well as returning periodically to Jefferson for checkups with Dr. Andrews and his other doctors.
"Once everything is cleared up and I have had four or five good MRI scans since my treatment ... I am confident I will be able to accomplish everything I set out to accomplish," Rob says. He plans to move south this winter so he is in a place where he can keep working out and kicking so that he's ready for the football offseason.
"I am as strong or stronger than I was before this," Rob says.
And much like his team of brain tumor specialists at Jefferson, Rob is pursuing a career in a specialty that "is a skill that takes practice and repetition."
Rob will work through the winter kicking for hours each day to hone his skills. He knows he is able to do so in part because his neurosurgeon Dr. David Andrews and his entire Jefferson team is among the most experienced in treating brain tumors around the world.
Knowing the value of teamwork and experience makes Rob confident when he says "I cancer kick this with Jefferson's help."