Up against a killer, Brian Midkiff forces overtime
COTTONWOOD - Brian Midkiff has a strong family with a devoted wife and three adoring children. Seven months ago a doctor told him he had 90 days to live. Diagnosis: stage four colon cancer.
Fresh off a family trip from the happiest place on Earth, the news hit Midkiff like a slap in the face. He's 38 years old; he had just health-consciously lost over 100 pounds with diet and exercise; he competed in the Biggest Loser weight loss challenge at the Cottonwood Rec Center; he ran in a couple half marathons; he stopped smoking. All that work getting in shape would pale in comparison to what his body would endure going through cancer treatments.
"I was told I had 90 days to live if I did nothing," said Brian. "They should have never told me 90 days because I'm a Midkiff. I'll fight tooth and nail. I'm not going anywhere."
Midkiff's mentality was the same a year and a half ago when facing a different killer even more prevalent than cancer: obesity.
"Are you planning for your funeral?" asked a doctor's assistant when Brian went in for a check up. At that point he weighed 360 pounds and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day.
"She was kind of mean to me, but that's what I needed to hear," said Brian. "I said what are you talking about, and she told me I was killing myself. That shocked me and immediately I quit smoking and went on a diet the next day. My wife, Courtney, didn't know if she could deal with me, but we knew the importance of getting back in shape."
Brian realized he was using food and soda to escape the pressures many other contractors like him felt during the economic downturn. He set his mind to make a positive change, and he did it with zeal. He was too young to think about death.
He wasn't always obese. In Brian's young adult life he was in great physical shape. At Mingus he wrestled his junior and senior years, graduating in 1991.
"My junior year was the first year that Tom Wokasch coached at Mingus. We all wanted to kill him. We hated him, but he was the best thing to happen to Mingus. Me and my brother were there the first year he started coaching," said Brian. "We were just a rag-tag group of wrestlers really, that cared more about partying than wrestling. Wokasch came in and shook things up. Of course we didn't like it because we were used to the easy life and he made it difficult for us. All the things he did over the next 20 years made Mingus what it is today with wrestling."
After high school Brian enlisted in the Army. His family has a tradition of military service.
"I went into the Army as a paratrooper at the tail end of the first gulf war. I was in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division. When I was sergeant I became the jumpmaster. I always wanted to improve myself and do better, so I figured since I was going to be there I might as well be someone in charge, rather than just being a private. I thought about making it a career, but I wanted to come back to Cottonwood and raise a family. Spencer was two-years-old when I got out, and my wife was pregnant with Wyatt. The military life isn't great for families, so I decided not to stay in," Brian said.
Brian and Courtney agree when they met it was a no-doubter love-at-first-sight connection.
"He was in the Military and a mutual friend said, "Hey I know this guy," and he came over with his friend and we hit it off, dated for a few months, and we were married within nine months," said Courtney.
That was about 18 years ago.
"I knew before she even said anything that she was the one for me," said Brian.
Now they have two sons in high school, Wyatt and Spencer, and a daughter in middle school, Carrington. All three children are very active.
"I do dance: ballet, jazz, contemporary and tap. It's about three hours a day, five days a week. We practice a different style each day. I've been doing that since I was three. I went to my first competition last year and it was really fun. This year we're going to another competition and I'm really looking forward to it," Carrington said.
Following in Brian's footsteps, freshman Wyatt and junior Spencer are wrestlers at Mingus.
"Wrestling is a family sport. It's different than any sport that I played," said Courtney. "The team is so supportive of each other, it's like an extended family. You don't get that kind of camaraderie in any other sport. They get really close, and I don't know if it's because of all the hard work and training they do together, or if it's the coaches, but it's nice to see. If our boys can't talk to Brian or me about something, they could easily talk to one of their coaches or one of their teammates and they feel really comfortable doing it. It's really neat like that."
The wrestling room is a place where Spencer and Wyatt can escape a little bit; where all they have to do is focus on themselves and improving their skills. They have talent and Mingus head wrestling coach Klint McKean says they both have state-placer potential.
Brian loves watching his boys wrestle, but his first opportunity to spectate this year came over the weekend at a JV tournament hosted at Mingus. The Midkiff boys wrestled down in JV so their father could watch.
Brian sat in a reclining living-room chair between matches in the Mingus gym as he waited for his boys to wrestle. He walked with a cane to sit by the mats as his boys competed. He can usually get around without a cane, but he had his gallbladder taken out a week prior. He coached his sons a little bit after their matches, but he was mostly there just to support his boys.
"I see a lot of parents that are just crazy with sports, they push their kids and push their kids. If you do that I think your kids may do well, but they'll end up burning out," said Brian. "If the kids don't want to wrestle or do ballet, it would break my heart, but we're not going to make them. It's their choice. I think that's why our kids are doing well, because we're not yelling and screaming at them if they don't win competitions or tournaments. We're proud of them if they have fun and give it 100 percent."
In sports there are the favored and the underdogs. Analysts and odds makers import stats from every measurable angle to come up with a prediction on who will win, but what they can't measure is heart and will. In his fight with cancer, Brian Midkiff is showing a lot of heart.
"I'm living with cancer, I'm not dying with cancer," said Brian. "I'm not taking no for an answer. I'm going to beat cancer. That's just the way I am. That's how my whole family is."
Wyatt and Spencer say watching their father fight cancer inspires them everyday to be the best they can be. The family feels every moment since day 90 is a blessing.
Living with cancer has changed Brian's family, but it hasn't turned them upside down. They lean on each other for support.
"We're a strong family. We were strong before all this and this has brought us even closer; we're even stronger. We're more supportive, and more loving, and more understanding," said Courtney. "It has taught us a lot. We have good days and bad days. We celebrate the good days and work together to get through the bad ones. That's what family is about. We appreciate what we have. It has changed a lot, but Brian is still the life of the party, in the center of everything. He's a great guy. He's a strong guy and he has perseverance beyond measure."
A positive attitude goes a long way in the fight against cancer. The people that grab cancer by the horns are the ones most likely to survive. Nurse Claudia Schwisow has seen it first hand.
"The people that win against cancer, especially the kind Brian was diagnosed with, it's because of that attitude. It's because of that fight, and the will to say, "It's me against cancer and I'm going to win." He has so many purposes in surviving. I remember when he got diagnosed he said, "I have so much left to do in my life." Losing wasn't even an option."
Claudia Schwisow met Brian when he was first diagnosed. Claudia is now more than just a nurse providing care; the relationship between Claudia and the Midkiffs is personal and deep.
"I knew Brian as a patient, and for some reason, he and his wife, from the day I met them became family to me. I realized they were special people and I wanted to do anything I could to help them," said Claudia.
Since then their bond has strengthened so much Brian calls Claudia a big sister, or sometimes an angel. She, along with John Alvey, organized fundraisers to help the Midkiffs in their time of need. For Claudia, getting to know the Midkiffs has been an enlightening experience.
"They showed me that in this day and age, the family unit still exists. They're a young couple, but they have qualities about their family you see in grandparents. They depend on each other, they carry each other, and they're there for each other. They're what a real family is all about. They reinstated that in me . . . that it still can exist," Claudia said.
John Alvey sees the same inspiring qualities in the Midkiffs too. Alvey ran alongside Brian in two half marathons after Brian inspired him to do it.
"Brian was involved in the Biggest Loser weight loss deal over at the Rec Center, and he had lost a lot of weight. He told me he was running in the Brian Mickelsen Half Marathon, and he says, "You're gunna do it too, right?" I thought, you know, if this guy can do this and he's lost as much weight as he has, that's impressive and that gives me desire to do it. We ran in that and both finished it. As soon as that was over he tells me, "Hey man, I'm running over in the Whiskey Row Half Marathon, you're gunna do it too, right?" And I said okay, I'll do it too, man. That's a tough run. We created a bond," said Alvey. "Shortly after that was when he was diagnosed. I told him, "You've got a right to be scared, but we're all in this together." He started his treatment and he said, "I'm going to kick cancer's ass." That was six months ago and I've seen a lot of people go through chemotherapy - - I don't know anyone who has the tenacity he does."
The fundraisers John Alvey and Claudia Schwisow organized included a dinner raffle hosted by Nate's Cowboy Café and a hike to the top of Mt. Humphreys where people pledged money for every foot ascended. An anonymous donor also donated $2,000.
The support the Midkiffs received from the community restored some faith in humanity for Brian.
"We've been helped by a lot of people, like Claudia, she's an angel, and my friend John Alvey. A lot of other people have helped us tremendously. On the news you hear nothing but bad stuff, but I tell you what, there are so many good people in this town. They've had fundraisers for us; they've done all kinds of stuff, unbelievable. People donating money that I don't even know, that I didn't even know cared, and it makes a big difference. When you're faced with this and you're scared and you don't know what's going to happen, it's tough, so it's nice for all these people to come together and help us out," said Brian.
He's not in remission yet. Brian's cancer isn't getting bigger because the six-month regimen of chemotherapy and surgeries kept the growth in check, but it's still there. He has to gear up for another round of chemotherapy and doctors don't know how long he'll need to continue treatment. Status: indefinite.
Brian is grinding against a tough opponent in extra time. Some people call overtime sudden death, but others call it sudden victory. The ones with their hand raised at the end of the match refused to lose.
Before chemotherapy, Brian lost 120 pounds with diet and exercise. Since then he lost another 25 pounds because of the treatment. He's still got meat on his bones, but his concern in his weight has shifted from trying to lose to trying to sustain.
"What I want to do is help people, that's how I get the most satisfaction," said Brian. "I feel that God has a plan for me. I want to help mentor people to lose weight who have food addictions. I want to help people who are going through cancer. I used to think that success was based solely on money. I've been there and done that. Really, the important thing for me is helping out other people. That's the number one thing I want to do with my life."
Brian Midkiff has a blog called Living With Cancer. If you would like to check it out, go to www.brianmidkiff.blogspot.com