Derek Babb remembers it clearly, the game in 1999, when he sat beside his buddy who had bomb diggity seats – the best he’d ever had – for a Colorado Avalanche game. Then, to top it off, a handful of Denver Broncos players arrived to celebrate their recent Super Bowl Championship.
Babb could not believe his luck and he cherishes the memory as one of his all-time best sports experiences. Until something even better happened this summer.
The Avs hockey stick day
The day didn’t start out that great. In fact, it hadn’t been a very good few months. Babb, with his Avs-themed mask covering his nose and mouth, made his way into the UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic in Loveland. He sat down to start yet another round of immunotherapy.
As he settled in, his oncologist, Dr. Douglas Kemme, whom Babb had been working with since he was first diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in May, appeared from around the corner with a long stick in his hand.
Kemme had an Av’s hockey stick that had been autographed by numerous players.
“Wow,” Babb said as he looked over the signatures.
Babb’s roommate, Chris Blackburn was there for the magic moment.
“His face!” Blackburn said, “And then when he got to hold it, that was good, but when he confirmed that he got to keep it — he was better than a kid at Christmas.”
Could it be COVID?
This spring, during the first wave of the pandemic, Babb didn’t feel well but the thought that it could be COVID-19 — made Babb hesitant to go to the hospital. News of the worldwide novel coronavirus was scary, even in his home town of Loveland, Colorado. Babb had heard of people going to the hospital with COVID-19, and not coming out. He did not want to be that person. So he waited.
Months passed. The number of people infected with COVID-19 had soared, and then fallen, and Babb still felt horrible. He had trouble breathing.
“I kept telling him to see a doctor,” Blackburn said. “Finally, I said, ‘Listen here, if you’re not ready by 3, I’m taking you, or I’m calling an ambulance.’”
Babb got ready and they went to the emergency room at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies.
Worse than COVID-19
Babb got a COVID-19 test immediately, but it would take a few days for the results to come back. In the meantime, doctors ordered a few more tests, which showed Babb’s lung full of fluid.
Babb spent the next six days in the hospital while a chest tube drained the liquid, at which time he also had an X-ray of his lungs.
It wasn’t COVID-19 but something potentially worse: lung cancer.
Starting treatment for lung cancer
At his first appointment with Kemme shortly after his diagnosis, Babb wore a mask sporting the logo of the Colorado Avalanche. He’d received it from a fellow Av’s enthusiast and coworker. It’s the only mask he likes to wear. He also had on an Avalanche jersey and hat, part of his huge sports collection in his “man cave” at home.
Kemme knew that UCHealth is the official health partner of the Colorado Avalanche. To enhance patients’ experience and to help them feel better, players and mascots from Colorado sports teams often visit patients to inspire hope for those experiencing tough challenges.
“When our patients receive a special recognition or gift from their heroes, the smile is from ear to ear,” Kemme said. “They follow the teams and players and to be part of their world makes their world a bit more manageable.”
So Kemme sought out the hockey stick for Babb. Any little boost, he thought, would be needed for the battle ahead.
Small cell lung cancer
The tumor in Babb’s chest was large: 15 cm. It occupied the whole right side of his lung and interfered with his lung function.
“It’s a very special type of lung cancer called small cell, which is different from all non-small cell types,” Kemme said. “When it is limited to just one half of the chest like with Derek, there is maybe a 20-30% chance of a 5-year cure. It’s not the best, but there is a fighting chance. And this young kid has the most positive attitude.”
At one point, Kemme told Babb that he may have only 6-9 months to live.
Babb admitted that the diagnosis was devastating, but he immediately wanted to beat it. He leans on family and friends, including Blackburn, for support, and they’ve helped him to hold onto that optimism.
“You’ve got to stay positive,” Blackburn said. “When we first found out, another coworker was over that night, and she got home and Googled (small-cell lung cancer). Then I Googled it. I told Derek we have to figure out how to think positive about it and not about all the bad stuff I had just read. Then I told him, ‘Please don’t ever Google it.’”
Babb has always had a positive outlook on life — a trait his friends and family admire — and cancer wasn’t going to change that.
“You keep positive and positive things happen to you. As dark as it can be, you stay positive and do the right thing, things will turn around for you,” Babb said. “It is what it is, and I’m making the best out of the days I have remaining.”
The battle against lung cancer
Babb started treatment right away, with four cycles of a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy. It shrunk the tumor to 8 cm and his lung started functioning properly again.
Providing immunotherapy for small cell lung cancer alongside chemotherapy is a newer treatment tool, Kemme explained. Chemotherapy kills the fast-growing cancerous cells with chemicals. Immunotherapy works on the cancer in a different fashion by altering the immune system to recognize cancer, allowing the body to fight it directly.
Immunotherapy does have some side effects, but nothing compared to chemotherapy, Kemme said. Those side effects don’t compound as treatment continues, so it can be used alongside chemotherapy and radiation to make those treatments more effective.
After chemo, Babb had radiation therapy. He will continue immunotherapy for the next year and in mid-December, he will have a CT scan to see if the radiation has helped.
“Even with a big and scary tumor, there is still hope that he will have a long-term response,” Kemme said.
Babb is hopeful. He feels better now, physically and mentally. He recently marked six months since his diagnosis, and is on his way to living longer than the 6-9 months that Dr. Kemme had warned about.
“I promised him I’d beat those odds,” Babb said. “It’s been six months, and I feel I’ll pass that prognosis.”
One more surprise
Inspired by Babb’s story and his love for their team, the Colorado Avalanche, with help from UCHealth, orchestrated one more surprise for Babb. Under the impression that he would be doing an interview with Altitude Sports’ Kyle Keefe, Babb joined the sports anchor via a virtual call. But Keefe had a few more surprises for Babb.
“I expected to talk with Kyle and was super excited to talk to him,” Babb said. “But then the other guys joined — that was unbelievable. It just made my day. It was just fantastic.”
Watch the surprise Kyle and the Colorado Avalanche had for Babb.
“It’s humbling,” Babb said. “It’s just been unbelievable what everyone has done at UCHealth for me, primary with my outcome, but also all this other stuff. This was a bucket list-type of experience.”