Game Face On

Hockey enthusiast Geoff Eaton faces-off against leukemia – and plays the game of his life. Read Geoff's story in The Healing Circle, by Rob Rutledge and Timothy Walker.

Photo © iStockPhoto.com/walik

Geoff Eaton stands 6 foot 5, has a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye. At age 22, St. John’s Newfoundland was his home. Geoff was studying business full-time in university and running his own marketing company. He also played an intense game of hockey and partied often with his friends. Almost overnight, Geoff seemed to lose his energy. His buddies blew past him on the ice. He chalked this up to his weight, then 225 pounds. One night, turning to place his drink down at a business reception, he fellover backwards and woke up staring at the ceiling. Intuitively he knew his life was about to change dramatically.

The doctors found Geoff had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare and very serious blood cancer. The cancer cells were crowding out the normal blood cells, putting him at risk for severe infections, bleeding, and sapping his life energy. Geoff was given six hours to leave the hospital to prepare for a prolonged hospital admission. Facing six hours that could be his last out in the world, he went to his apartment to get music, gym pants, and his pillow. Twice he went to Signal Hill, the local mountain, overlooking his coastal city. From these heights, a fierce determination was arising. Geoff wanted to do everything possible to watch these sunsets and to drive his motorcycle till age 95. He choked up at the thought of not having an opportunity to breathe life into his dreams. He asked himself over and over what he needed to do to stay alive.

Back in his apartment his roommate cornered him, demanding to know why Geoff looked so upset. Geoff knew the one-word answer to his friend’s question but it wouldn’t come out. He kept trying to say it. Finally Geoff said clearly “Leukemia, they think it’s leukemia.” Geoff thinks that this moment of acknowledging the diagnosis directly was a turning point for him. “It was as if this major weight was taken off my shoulders, the knife taken out of my back. Literally, in that instant, my whole perspective switched and I started to say to my inner self ‘Yeah, they think I have leukemia and I can f ’ing tackle that!’”

He remembers walking into the hospital elevator for the very first course of chemotherapy. His face was expressionless but the eyes were intense—this was his “game face”—the feeling he got as he walked to the arena before a big hockey game. He would get ‘aggressive’ with his cancer. He created a virtual play-off hockey series in his head, ‘Geoff versus cancer’. Each round of chemotherapy would represent a game in his series. Geoff ’s family and friends bought into his strategy completely. His Dad brought him his official Mario Lemieux stick; a buddy who works for the St. John’s Maple Leafs gave him the official puck; and he wore the same jersey he wore when he captained his high school team. The puck soon became the symbol of his soul energy and stayed with him throughout his hospitalization.

Before every new round of chemotherapy, nurses would set up the IV pole opposite Geoff. Hunched over at the faceoff, stick crossing over the lines of chemotherapy, the puck was dropped. When Geoff played hockey he played to win. He told his physicians that it was his game—not theirs.He was the player and they were the coaches. His family and friends would have to watch from the stands.

Geoff interpreted every symptom as if it arose during a hockey game. If he got a headache from a blood transfusion, he understood that he had taken a hit to the head from his opponent. When his energy levels sagged, he knew he had to get off the ice for a quick rest on the bench. “For me, in some strange way, I felt when I was having pain and discomfort that Iwas really ‘playing hard’, competing if you will, and I took comfort from that. It was part of the game.”

Geoff brought this same fiery intensity to his interactions with the medical team. Whether the person was a physician, nurse, therapist or cleaning person, if anyone tried to talk down to him, he would ‘slam them shut.’

“I’m a ‘Proactive Patient’, which basically means sometimes I’m a big pain in the ass for docs and nurses, but I always qualified that with ‘Hopefully, I’ll be equally rewarding.’ I wanted to know what the drug side-effects might be and specifically when and how long I would take the drugs.” As Geoff ’s reputation grew, his physicians began to send in medical students to learn from this master in self-advocacy.

Geoff reflects back to this time and says “I had this feeling in my gut that I was going to experience some amazing things, both ‘good’ and ‘not so good’. And I felt I wanted to share those experiences and the lessons I learned as a result. I was eager to talk to anyone who would listen, and that included medical students. I also started an e-mail group the first week I was in hospital to keep friends and family up to date on my progress. To share my story was one of the most significant decisions I made.”

Geoff ’s treatment plan included a bone marrow transplant with marrow from his Dad. This occurred at a major cancer centre 2000 miles from his home, and required high-dose chemotherapy designed primarily to destroy the leukemia in his body. It would also destroy many healthy cells, including his entire immune system. As a result of this intense treatment, Geoff had to spend forty days of harrowing isolation in a psychological desert—a minor infection could be deadly.

With stick and puck in hand, he began days of chemotherapy. One night, weakened to the point of despair, he slumped over on the toilet. To his left hung his chemotherapy medication dripping in from a big brown bag. On his right hung a bag of red blood cells which flowed in smoothly. He began to think about never being able to play hockey again. Suddenly he felt a presence in the room and a tap on his head. A voice from beyond seemed to say, “You are going to have to choose one or the other”—the brown bag of chemotherapy or the red bag of blood. At that moment he resolved to choose the vibrant red blood…to choose life.

Thus began a slow and painful recovery. The days ticked by. Geoff befriended one of the Jamaican nurses on the unit—Rose. She was boisterous, fun, and full of life. He wanted some independence, and Rose understood this. He asked her to teach him how to unhook the lines and feeding tubes because there was a rock concert in town he wanted to attend. Geoff knew he would expose himself to a sea of germs among the thousands of fans, but he reasoned life is meant to be lived and every decision is a balance of risk and benefit. He loved the concert and, as it turns out, he didn’t get sick.

His blood counts continued to improve. After two months cooped up in a hospital room, far from his Newfoundland home, Geoff longed for a view of the ocean. When the doctors gave him the green light, he literally took the next flight home. Puck in hand, donning his hockey jersey, he decided to send his winning stick home by car, worried the airline would break it.

A week after Geoff got home, the party came to a crashing stop. At 3:00 AM, fevers, chills, and a bad set of shakes signalled an infection in the IV line in his upper chest. Back into hospital for high dose antibiotics. Geoff was sick. Deathly sick. Each day the frown on his doctor’s face deepened. A second infection. Plummeting blood counts. Geoff wrote his will and planned his funeral. One organ after another began to shut down—and he became agitated and scared. He was spending what little life energy he had thrashing about.

The doctors wanted to put a tube down his throat, put him on life support, to try to paralyze his muscles in a last effort to save his life. But in Geoff ’s mind he was still skating hard. He couldn’t think clearly. He refused to let the doctors get close enough to place the tube down his throat. He began to lash out at them. His father and brother were pleading with him to let them do it, each holding down a shoulder—a father’s nightmare, fighting against a dying son.

The tube went in but Geoff was still punching out, exhausted but not willing to let go of the hockey game. Geoff ’s dad yelled at him, “Have you had enough?” With a tube finally down his throat, Geoff scrawled a note: “Not yet.”

The medication took effect. It required ten times the normal dosage to put down this raging elephant. Geoff was suspended in a deep sleep, barely holding on to life. The next 48 hours were agony for his family. Each hour the update was worse than the one before.

His father arrived at 7:00 AM to disastrous news. Geoff’s lungs had begun to bleed. Two respiratory therapists focused on his every breath, suctioning out the pink froth. The team was working wildly around him.

Geoff was dying. The chance of recovery was less than one percent. Meanwhile, Geoff was dreaming he was an infantryman at war, separated from his fellow soldiers, staggering through the deep brush. If only he could find the troops. He stood up in an opening to get a better view of the facing hill. Suddenly enemy fighters jumped up and stitched him with machine gun fire in the chest. He was bleeding into his lungs.

Hour after hour Geoff dangled limp on the brink of death. Nightfall. Darkness everywhere. Waiting. Praying. Clutched in the palm of Geoff ’s hand was his hockey puck. Holding. Holding. Even when the nurses adjusted the IVs, they knew not to disturb the puck in his hand. The physiotherapists turned him and stretched him out without displacing his puck. Everyone knew that Geoff wanted to keep playing in this series.

Suddenly someone asked “Where is Geoff ’s hockey stick?” Someone rushed home to bring it in.

Slowly the numbers on the monitors began to climb upwards, step by step, flashing hope and possibility.

Geoff opened his eyes three weeks later. His family was at his bedside holding their collective breath. He wanted to give his mother a hug, but he was too weak to even lift his arms. They wanted to know if he’d seen the light—gone to the other side and back. Geoff couldn’t answer.

Three weeks going through the dark night of the soul had devastated his mental abilities. He had no idea where he was, and he had absolutely no memory of what had happened. He could hardly talk. He started with the basics… ‘Where am I? What happened?’ He asked those questions repeatedly for days until the answers were firmly planted in his head.

Geoff was terrified of sleeping because he thought that if he fell asleep he’d never wake up again. He was suffering from what doctors call ‘ICU psychosis’. It was a restless time of dark thoughts and fear of death. His mother was the first to see the predicament. She understood that if he didn’t sleep, he wouldn’t recover. No degree of coddling could settle his fear. Finally, she snapped “If you want to get home, you’re going to have to let yourself sleep.” Jaw clenched, she walked briskly out of the room.

Geoff looked over at the nurse. He scrawled on the pad, “What do I have to do to get out of this place?” The nurse pointed to the monitor measuring the oxygen in his bloodstream. “You have to get your oxygen saturation greater than 90 percent without the oxygen mask.” He squeezed his puck hard once, and then melted into his bed for deep sleep.

A few days later he was discharged from intensive care to the medical ward, stable but very weak.

Geoff ran a hand up his abdomen and chest. His muscles had dissolved. His mother had to brush his teeth for him and nurses turned him in bed to wash his backside.

Even though Geoff was mentally and physically exhausted, he couldn’t take being in the hospital any longer. He looked at his Mom and said, “I need to go home.” The doctors refused, explaining that Geoff would be 100 percent dependent on his family for everything. But the family was ready for the responsibility. On the way home from the hospital, they drove him up to Signal Hill on what was a beautiful sunny August afternoon.

At home, Geoff was so weak he couldn’t give his brother a high-five or shake his Dad’s hand, never mind get to the bathroom. This was a significant issue for Geoff because the chemotherapy had literally removed the lining of his gut, leaving a problem of unpredictable diarrhea. Thankfully, his great sense of humour was always present. For example, not fully knowing what would happen if he had to pass gas, he would joke with his Dad and say “Let’s roll the dice!” Geoff used his hospital bed for the first stages of his strength training.

He tried to raise himself up by pulling on the rails. He did these pull-ups every day and eventually was strong enough to hold himself in the sitting position…next would be getting back on his feet.

Just two and a half weeks after leaving hospital, Geoff made a momentous five-step journey from his hospital bed to his couch. It was a moment of incredible triumph for him. Sitting down, though, Geoff found himself literally swallowed by the couch. He was trapped with no strength to keep himself upright or get back on his feet and make his way back to bed without help.

But Geoff was determined and worked hard. A mere seven months after his first steps, he was back at work. He created a national organization, initially known as RealTime Cancer and now called Young Adults Cancer Canada.

He decided to mark the first anniversary of his first steps to the couch by climbing Signal Hill. He invited 170 of his friends, family, and email buddies to join him in the first Young Adults Cancer Climb. Now this climb is an annual event in many cities.

It is a long walk to the top of Signal Hill. But Geoff was walking up a mental mountain as well. He was taking his healing journey very seriously.

Geoff began to watch his body more closely. He found exercise was crucial to his recovery but noticed that he couldn’t attack life at a breakneck pace. He needed nine hours of sleep to stay sharp mentally. He learned to slow down, take time off, and pace himself. He admits this is a work in progress.

An internal transformation was occurring at this time. He no longer viewed his cancer as an enemy. “I didn’t hate it anymore. I didn’t want it dead—just gone. Cancer is my friend, not a friend I want forever, but it has taught me so many valuable lessons and helped me develop a perspective I would not trade for anything in the world. I began to look at my life more as a journey. I would just take this one step at a time.” Geoff had traded in his hockey stick for a walking stick.

Geoff was told that if he could make it to the two-year anniversary date of his bone marrow transplant, he would likely be cured of his leukemia—and if he didn’t, his chances were essentially nil.

On the cusp of Geoff ’s two-year anniversary, however, his blood counts began to plummet. His leukemia had recurred. Even though this news was devastating, Geoff understood it simply as another bump on the road of life.

But this time, there was no more gritting his teeth. Geoff ’s game face had softened and a calm settled in his eyes. His friends thought he was giving up. They thought he had forfeited the hockey game. But Geoff was simply in a different frame of mind. The previous outward intensity was now focused deep within his soul.

A nursing shortage at the hospital where he received his first bone marrow transplant was creating delays in re-treatment there which was his first option. A bureaucrat in his home province said there had to be a six-week review before Geoff would be considered for a transplant at another center, delaying his second option. The message from the bureaucrats was “Stay on your chemotherapy and wait to see what happens”.

Geoff was drawing on his deep will to live in his dealings with the medical system and his determination led him to a third option. He found out that Ottawa offered the same transplant chemotherapy, on an outpatient basis, that he would receive going back to the original hospital.

In Ottawa, Geoff could stay in an apartment beside the hospital, ready to rush back if he ever spiked a fever or felt unwell.

He jumped at the chance and went to Ottawa. After the second transplant, he never needed to be readmitted. His leukemia had disappeared for the time being.

Geoff won’t pretend that he had no fear of recurrence, but his psychological and spiritual perspective continued to blossom. He sought the help of a counsellor and a few alternative practitioners to help him heal his body and his psyche. After the second transplant, his osteopath, an insightful and wise healer, asked him a life-altering question: “What didn’t you learn about yourself during your first remission?”

Geoff had to admit that he had always pushed down his emotions. He considered himself almost like a politician at times, saying what others wanted to hear. He also realized he was angry at being debilitated again and decided to let it out for the first time. “This is bullshit. I don’t know how I’m feeling. All I know is I have to drag myself out of bed every day.”

“I learned it was okay to be afraid and cry. It’s okay to be mad and upset. But for me it’s not okay to let myself stay in those places. There is a time and place, but it’s not forever.”

Geoff decided to buy a motorcycle as part of his recovery—to experience the wind, open spaces, and a rush of joy. He was back hanging with his friends. He had time now to share some laughs with his friend’s younger sister, Karen. His friend cautioned him not to get involved with her.

Geoff jokes, “But I had already broken into the fortress to win the princess.” Before they knew it, Karen’s arms were wrapped around Geoff as they took long rides on his motorcycle. A love affair. Marriage. Lots of learning, listening, and really loving deeply.

How does Geoff feel about having a life-threatening illness and being in a long-term relationship? Does he wish the cancer had never occurred?

Geoff is philosophical in his reply. “I honestly believe that all of our experiences have purpose, nothing is random, and everything has meaning.

I believe there’s this huge force, I call it the universe, and it connects all of us. While we are here, we can act from one of two main places, love or fear. I like what I experience and what happens in the world around me when I’m coming from the place of love. So I’ve made the effort to do that. Sometimes I slip, other times I’m golden. It’s all part of being human, really.”

Four years after his second transplant there was no sign of cancer recurrence. Geoff was a walking miracle. But he was deeply disappointed he couldn’t have his own children because his physicians had forgotten to recommend sperm banking before the first chemotherapy. He continued having sperm tests after his second transplant, but always with the same result—no sperm.

Then, one day, he dropped off his little plastic cup and called in to chat with his fertility nurse who told him he had 0.2 million sperm, with motility of 10 percent. “I was jacked! Holy shit, how did that happen? This is still a super low count; but it’s a number other than zero and while the boys are barely dancing, they’re dancing!

“That fall, my wife and I got in to see a fertility doc to begin talking about our options for starting a family. We had a great chat, but the doc reassured us that my sperm count is like we’re using birth control; there was no way we’d have children naturally. What the doc didn’t know was that, over the course of the last four years, I had begun to love it when the odds were so strongly stacked against me.”

And then came this posting on Geoff ’s website to the young adult cancer community: “Yes, just after my last super low sperm test, one of my boys beat the odds in a way I never have before. He heard the start gun and gave’er, albeit against a much smaller group of competitors than normal, but that doesn’t take away from the victory at all.

“Today, Karen’s belly is the biggest it’s ever been, she looks the best she’s ever looked to me, and in another month or so we’ll welcome our little champ into the family.

“So gents, remember, just because you’ve been given tough news about fertility, just because you’ve had tests that show your swimmers to be low in numbers, miracles happen!!”

Seven years after his second bone marrow transplant, with no evidence of cancer recurrence, Geoff keeps his hockey puck close by. He returns home every day fromhis groundbreaking work at Young Adult Cancer Canada—to his wife and two beautiful daughters.


All proceeds from the sale of The Healing Circle: Integrating science, wisdom and compassion in reclaiming wholeness on the cancer journey, will go to the Healing and Cancer Foundation, a registered Canadian charity. Visit HealingandCancer.org for more information about the book and its authors, Dr. Rob Rutledge, MD and Timothy Walker, PhD.

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