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Wings’ assistant Sanderson taking his best shot at life with brain tumor

Friday, 27th March 2009

Categories Boy's/Men's, Pro  

By Michael Bradley, Posted 3/27/09

You know how it is in the lax fraternity, especially among the players. There is nothing that’s off limits.

The smallest abnormality or blemish is open to unending abuse. Say something stupid and you’re likely to get a nickname that sticks for 50 years.

Show weakness of any kind and expect that to be your defining characteristic. And, by all means, protect your food. It’s done with love, of course, except when they put hot sauce in your jelly donut. That’s not quite so affectionate.

Welcome to Chris Sanderson’s world, and he considers it “normal.” The rest of society might think it’s a page out of “Lord of the Flies,” but when that’s what you have known since you were growing up just north of Toronto, in “the lacrosse capital of the world,” you gravitate toward the craziness.

So, when Sanderson was 17 days removed from major brain surgery to extract a tumor, he needed to be back behind the Philadelphia Wings’ bench, directing the National Lacrosse League team’s defense and getting a full flavor of the lacrosse life that’s in every cell in his body.

Trouble was, those pranking, busting, merciless fellas that he hoped to find had changed. All of a sudden, they were, uh, kind.

“It’s funny, but for my peers and the guys I played with and the guys I’m coaching, it was an unusual thing,” says Sanderson, the nephew of Wings’ General Manager Lindsay Sanderson. “To see someone my age fighting this was a tough thing for everybody to reconcile.

“Normally, they see a parent or a grandparent dealing with this, and it’s easier for people to rationalize. These guys knew me as a new dad.”

So, maybe that was all too much for them. The 34-year old Sanderson is the father of two girls, has been married just over four years and is fighting grade IV glioma, which is as nasty as it sounds.

The prognosis is grim: 9-to-12 months, and the long-term survival rate is 1 percent. When Sanderson showed up with an ugly scar on his head and a long, grueling road ahead of him, it was hard to think about putting Icy Hot in his jock or an egg in his shoe. Lacrosse players may be brutal, but they’re not heartless.

Not that Sanderson is looking for any sympathy. When you’re fighting, you want people in your corner, not maudlin sentiment and long faces.

Giving it his best shot

Think about anything tough you have done. It’s nice to know people acknowledge its difficulty, but when it’s time to get down to work, you need allies and assistance.

That’s why Sanderson is so amazed at his wife, Brogann, who has teamed with her brother, Mark Tassie, to form a tag-team case management attack that has allowed Sanderson to get the best care available.

He was operated on at Duke University in December and is taking part in an experimental treatment program there. They have sparred with insurance companies, doctors’ offices and hospital administrators to make sure Sanderson has the best chance to accomplish his goal: “I’m hoping to be the one percent that lives through this,” he says. If he makes it, his wife and brother-in-law will get huge assists.

“[Brogann] is a therapist, so she knew her way around crisis management, and she knew how to be an advocate,” Sanderson says. “Her brother is an absolute bulldog who works on Wall Street. When he gets his mind on something, he won’t let go.”

That’s how Sanderson was with lacrosse – until last fall.

He played indoors as a youngster inOrangeville, ON, and didn’t move outside until he joined the Canadian under-19 team. His performance was good enough to attract big-time Division I attention, and Sanderson made his way to Virginia as a starting goalie and history major.

The Cavaliers enjoyed plenty of success during his time there, reaching the national semis when he was a freshman and losing to Princeton in the finals, in OT, the next season. His junior and senior campaigns ended in the quarterfinals.

From there, it was on to the NLL, where he played one year for Baltimore and two for the Wings, while holding down day jobs on Wall Street and with sports marketing firms. In the summers, he worked camps inCanada, and in 2005, Sanderson decided to make lacrosse his livelihood, as well as his avocation.

In addition to his coaching duties with the Wings, which he has performed for four-plus seasons, Sanderson runs the Fighting Beavers Lacrosse Club, operates his True North Lacrosse retail store and an on-line merchandise clearinghouse site, Every day at 6 p.m., Sanderson puts an item – the “deal of the day” – up for sale at a deep discount. When it’s sold out, it’s gone. “With my situation,” I can run that remotely.

Sanderson deals with hisa diagnosis

Yes, his situation. Sanderson sounds like any other entrepreneur, and he felt like one until last fall, when he started noticing some numbness in his lips and some tingling in his right side. His doctor told him it was stress-related and told him not to worry.

When he started slurring his speech while reading to his girls at night, it was impossible not to be concerned. “I thought it was lack of practice reading aloud,” Sanderson says.

Since he wasn’t debilitated during his regular workouts, Sanderson kept moving forward. Last October, when he had a seizure while driving and was found by another motorist along the side of the road, alarms sounded. Doctors told him he had a tumor but that it was small enough that an MRI didn’t show a real cause for concern. Sanderson was given anti-seizure medicine and sent on his way. “I felt good and was back in the gym,” he says.

Turns out the good feelings were a mirage. During a scrimmage in New York, he experienced involuntary jaw movement. An MRI revealed significant growth in the tumor. It was now Grade IV. In other words, a monster was attacking his brain.

“My world was turned upside down,” he says. Next was surgery. Then radiation. But not ordinary treatments. Most cancer sufferers get about 15 seconds a shot. Sanderson got 15 minutes. He doubled up that with chemotherapy, which has since been “ramped up.”

A recent scan revealed a decrease in the cancer, but Sanderson is hopeful the tumor will continue to contract. He enjoys being with the Wings and part of the lax community. But what was once all consuming is now merely a part of his life. Sanderson is a man on a mission to stay with his family as long as possible and to squeeze each drop of life from each new day. If that means pushing the game he loves to the background, so be it.

“Lacrosse was huge in my life, probably to a fault,” he says. “It was my passion and my priority, not to the point where I put my wife and kids behind it, but it was all-encompassing, as my job and my passion.

“This has forced me to put it in its right place. I need to enjoy the moments I have. When your prognosis is 9-to-12 months, every day is precious.

“Lacrosse is in its proper place. It’s therapeutic to be coaching. I was back on the bench two-and-a-half weeks after brain surgery, and people thought I was crazy. But I needed normalcy.

“When you have one of three cancers for which there is no cure, it’s not a good feeling. But getting out and doing something I had done before and getting support from kids and players and families has been great for me. Everybody has a group that helps them. For me, my support group is the lacrosse community.”

You heard the man. Isn’t there somebody out there who can hit him in the face with a pie?



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