In the past month, Jeb Schroder has had some great moments: meeting an iconic Colorado Rockies baseball star; attending a Rockies game and watching it from a VIP box; playing catch before the game with current Rockies players.
Heady stuff for a 19-year-old athlete who played and starred as a pitcher and third baseman for Springfield High School in rural Baca County, far from the bright lights of Coors Field and the busy streets of Denver. But the shining moments came at a heavy price. Jeb Schroder has spent the last six months in an unexpected fight against testicular cancer that spread to his lungs.
Jeb and his extended family are cautiously optimistic after an ordeal that included four one-week-long cycles of chemotherapy at University of Colorado Hospital. He said the chemo “felt like having battery acid” running through him, and at one point it caused a severe reaction. Losing his hair during chemo was tougher to take than he’d thought.
“That was really hard,” he said as he sat with family and friends in a quiet alcove at Union Station in downtown Denver on a recent Sunday morning. “You get weird looks.”
He also needed treatment for a serious blood clot in the lung and underwent testicular surgery, performed by urologic surgeon Nicholas Cost, MD. The blood clot still bears watching and he takes blood thinners, but the chemo has shrunk his cancer dramatically and his blood tumor markers have dropped to normal levels. He’ll come back to UCH every three months for scans and will get his blood checked regularly in Springfield to determine if he will need more treatment, said Elaine Lam, MD, his medical oncologist.
Jeb’s determination and the strong support of his family, friends and community created a story of spirit that UCHealth spotlighted with its “Moments to Shine” program. The goal: give patients their families, and others opportunities to take a step away from the challenges of illness and treatment and instead spend time doing things they love. UCHealth leaders say the system plans to work closely with its sports partners, including the Rockies, Denver Broncos, Nuggets and Avalanche, to give Moments to Shine to many more deserving people.
Going to bat for patient care
During a chemotherapy treatment on June 16, Jeb mentioned to oncology social worker Morgan Gonzales, LSW, MSW, a fond memory of going to a Rockies game and having a sore neck from watching post-game fireworks. With that, the UCHealth Marketing and Communications team helped to arrange for former Rockies slugger Vinnie Castilla – a charter member of the “Blake Street Bombers” – to come to the University of Colorado Cancer Center and surprise Jeb and his parents, Beki and Curt, with eight tickets to the Rockies’ July 9 game against the Philadelphia Phillies.
About two dozen Cancer Center employees and leaders were on hand for the presentation, along with Cost, Lam, and Tom Purcell, MD, executive medical director of Oncology Services. Castilla presented the tickets to Jeb in a silver box along with a Rockies jersey that he signed. The family also received hotel vouchers for two rooms at the Crawford Hotel in Denver’s Union Station to stay in after the game.
Relaxing at Union Station the next day, Jeb said the experience, which included watching a fireworks show from the field after the game, lived up to all expectations. The pleasant surprises were a much-needed contrast to the shocks he and his family have absorbed the past few months.
Last December, Jeb was attending Northeast Junior College in Sterling when he experienced some back pain and a persistent cough. His dad, Curt, had also dealt with a bad cough around the same time and assumed he and Jeb had both gotten a case of the flu.
But as days turned into weeks, the symptoms didn’t improve. Jeb said he coughed to the point of throwing up. He couldn’t catch his breath. He began losing weight, dropping 20 pounds in two weeks.
“All I did was go to class, come back to my dorm, and go to sleep,” he recalled.
When the back pain got worse, Jeb went to the emergency department at the hospital in Springfield, but an MRI revealed nothing out of the ordinary. However, chest X-rays at Children’s Hospital Colorado on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora showed he had tumors in his lungs and his bloodwork identified biomarkers for cancer. He also had a blood clot in the inferior vena cava, the vein that carries blood from the lower body into the heart.
A plane flew Jeb from Baca County to UCH, where he was admitted on Jan. 23 and readied for treatment at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in the state.
Surprise and shock
The next day he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The Cancer Center is part of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and in that role helps to determine the standards of care for testicular and other kinds of cancer.
“Jeb got great support from everyone back home, including his physicians,” said Lam. “It was the right decision to send him here for more advanced, specialized treatment.”
Nothing about his life suggested cancer of any kind. The Schroders farm and ranch in rugged country that rewards hard work and physical strength. The youngest of three boys, Jeb excelled in football and baseball. He began on the diamond at an early age, and Curt served as his coach on the Baca County Bombers. Jeb went on to earn all-state honors in baseball after his senior year at Springfield High School.
However, young men 20 to 34 years of age should be aware of the risk of testicular cancer, Lam said. About 8,500 cases of testicular cancer are diagnosed each year. “All young men need to be aware that cancer is a possibility, even at that age,” Lam said.
The most common symptom is a mass in the testicle – usually painless – but Jeb’s case was atypical in that his testicular tumors were very small and easily escaped detection. The shortness of breath, fatigue and abrupt weight loss that Jeb experienced were tell-tale symptoms of illness of some type, but Jeb understandably said the possibility of cancer didn’t cross his mind.
“There isn’t a lot of information out there,” Beki said. “Jeb didn’t have any pain, but there are other signs. You can’t brush them off.”
That’s a lesson Jeb’s girlfriend, Kallysa McGeary, said she’s learned from the experience. McGeary spent a semester at a college in Minnesota, but had returned to Baca County just before Jeb began getting sick. His diagnosis fell on the first day of her online classes with Lamar Community College.
“You see other people going through this, but you never imagine it will happen to you,” McGeary said. “You don’t know until you’re in it how much it affects you.”
Jeb’s story also underscores the importance of emotional and social support during and after cancer treatment. As his social worker, Gonzales helped put Jeb in touch with other testicular cancer survivors. Closer to home, he is friends with 17-year-old Rustin Robins, diagnosed with a different form of cancer a year ago. Robins accompanied the Schroders to Denver for the July 9 game. Beki said Robins’ parents helped her and Curt come to terms with Jeb’s diagnosis.
The Baca County community rallied around the Schroders, donating money to defray expenses and offering help and support in many ways. A trip to the market to pick up a loaf of bread often turns into an hour of conversation with friends and neighbors asking after Jeb, Curt said.
That support was especially needed during Jeb’s chemotherapy regimen, which required four rounds of week-long hospital stays. Beki, Curt and brothers Ryne and Derek stayed with Jeb in his room during the weeks of infusions, then shuttled back to Baca County with him for a couple of weeks of recovery. A group from Springfield High and another from the Agriculture Department at Northeast Junior College donned “Schroder Strength” T-shirts to show their solidarity in his struggle.
“Everybody was there for me,” Jeb said. “Even when I was not in the hospital, they called and texted, just to see if we needed anything checked or if there was any way that they could help.”
The staff and providers at UCH also offered strong support, clinically and otherwise. Beki and Curt remember important human touches: nurses asking if they needed coffee and making sure Jeb had clean sheets and enough towels and blankets; Environmental Services and Food and Nutrition Services staff stopping to chat; a nurse sitting with Jeb when he had the reaction to the chemotherapy; the strong eye contact providers made when they spoke with them and answered questions.
Lam recalled offering him words of encouragement after his first round of chemotherapy, which was a tough time. “I remember telling him that I knew how bad he felt right now,” Lam said. “But I also told him that it won’t always be that way.”
Along the way, Beki also supported herself and her family by keeping a close eye on everything Jeb went through.
“The doctors told us so many things,” she said. “After a while, I found it was good to write everything down.” With time, the details of his treatment became more positive. He began to regain weight. The tumor markers decreased to normal levels. The cancers in his lungs shrank dramatically and he no longer needed to be on oxygen.
“You begin to actually see something,” Beki said. “You get it down, and you see that the treatment is working.”
For now, Jeb is at home, driving semis and branding calves. He gets fatigued, but he’s eating better and feeling stronger. He’s not exactly sure what lies ahead – and he’s fine with that.
“I haven’t decided what I want to do yet,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m clear of the cancer. I have to be careful. I’ll let my body be the judge.”