Shock is all Steve Rogers felt when he heard the news, as he was lying in his hospital bed, recovering from surgery on his ruptured pancreas.
The doctors were supposed to say something along the lines of, ‘the surgery went well and you should be back on your feet soon.’
Instead, they told him he had cancer. They found it while he was on the operating table.
Sixteen years ago, Steve’s life was turned upside down.
He was an account executive at IBM when it happened. His wife, Wendy, was a stay at home mom, helping to raise their three kids — all under 10 years old — Christopher, Preston and Lindsey, who currently wears No. 25 for the Gators volleyball team.
Tonight at 7, he’ll have a chance to watch his daughter play in Florida’s annual ‘Dig Pink’ match, which aims to raise funds and increase awareness for breast cancer.
“I think that when they were growing up, the C-word, cancer, just meant that your dad or your mom was going to die,” Steve said. “I mean, that’s what everybody just expected from cancer, so tough on the kids because — you know, just wondering when their mom or dad is going to die.”
Luckily for Steve, the doctors found the pancreatic cancer early, when it was still Stage 1. They operated, removed it and ordered up some chemotherapy to be safe.
But then, in 2003 — just a couple years after Steve fought off pancreatic cancer — the disease hit the family again.
Wendy was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She was in chemotherapy for about six months and on radiation treatments for six weeks. Hormonal therapy stuck with her for 10 years, though.
Ultimately, both Steve and Wendy pushed through and saw their cancers go into remission.
One of the deadliest diseases in the world picked a fight with the Rogers family, twice.
And both times, it lost.
Faith has always been a big part of the Rogers’ family life.
The family went to church together, and Christopher, Preston and Lindsey all attended Holy Comforter Episcopal School in Tallahassee.
If you ask them, they’ll tell you exactly when they saw their faith in action.
“(Steve) was out on a canoe trip,” Lindsey started. “He was on a rope swing and his hands were muddy and he slipped off the rope swing, and when he did that he did a belly flop and that ended up rupturing his pancreas, which caused him to go to the emergency room.”
Steve doesn’t think it was an accident.
“If I didn’t fall off that rope swing,” Steve said, “... they wouldn’t have found the cancer so early.”
Finding it early may have been the key to saving his life.
“One of the other dads on the canoe trip said ‘Steve, I saw an angel pull you off the rope swing,’” Lindsey said. “So my family is very big in just trusting in the Lord’s plan and where he leads us.”
In the 1980s, that plan led Steve and Wendy to roster spots on a couple of Division I sports teams.
Steve spent a year on the Florida football team, and Wendy won the 1982 national championship with the Florida State softball team.
“I was there for a short time, but I decided it was time to study,” Steve said. “Wendy was on the team and was a contributor for all four years, including during the national championship season.”
Christopher and Preston played golf through high school, and Lindsey took part in a number of sports growing up.
She played competitive volleyball and softball until high school, when she chose to focus solely on volleyball.
“I was a hitter in high school so I played front row and back row, all the way around,” Lindsey said.
Her abilities on the court garnered attention from scouts trying to sign the Lawton Chiles High School star. Ultimately, she passed up opportunities to hit at smaller Division I schools to sign as a defensive specialist with a national powerhouse in Florida, led by legendary coach Mary Wise.
Since Wise took over in 1991 the Gators have owned the SEC, winning the conference 18-straight years at one point. Florida has never missed the NCAA Tournament under Wise, either.
Lindsey, 22, is now in her final season with the Gators.
“It’s been a really good ride,” she said. “It’s gone by super fast, but I’ve enjoyed all of it.”
Steve’s checkup in December 2016 was supposed to be routine. He made the familiar trip to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where he had always gone for his cancer treatments.
Once again a procedure involving one injury exposed a more sinister problem — in this case, a simple X-ray led doctors to find lung cancer.
Steve was more shocked with this news than he was the first time he was told he had cancer.
He hadn’t smoked a day in his life — although he said his mother did while he was growing up.
It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, though.
“It was Stage 1 and they removed it,” he recalled. “No chemo, no radiation. The protocol in the staging of the cancer didn’t require it, so I just recovered from the surgery and went back to work and back to leading my life.”
Steve was discharged from the hospital on Christmas Eve. Lindsey called it the best Christmas present anyone in the family could ask for.
A follow-up appointment in April 2017 provided more good news.
“They did scans again and everything looked good,” Steve said.
With some peace of mind, Lindsey headed to California. The rising senior spent the summer out west after securing an internship with Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Her return home in August was marred by another wave of bad news, however.
“When I came back, mom and dad said that he had had a mass on his head,” Lindsey said.
But it wasn’t just her dad’s head that needed attention.
After enduring another round of tests and scans, Steve was told his lung cancer was back, and worse than before.
Not only was it Stage 4, but it had spread to his shoulder, hip, spine and sternum as well.
The cancer had camped out in his lungs, bones and tissues — and this time it was too late for surgery.
“It’s just chemicals versus cancer at this point,” Steve said.
So, once again, Lindsey watched her father travel to Jacksonville for treatments at the Mayo Clinic.
“They got him in really quickly,” Lindsey said. “Mayo (Clinic) has done a commercial on my family, so I swear they know everyone in it. Like, you walk in there and everyone’s like ‘Hello Mr. Rogers!’”
It’s still tough on Steve, though, as he deals with the rigors of cancer treatment. He was put on chemotherapy and radiation therapy immediately after the doctors’ most recent diagnosis.
It’s hard to go from Tallahassee to Jacksonville every three weeks, but he tries not to let it bring him down.
The doctors say he might need treatments the rest of his life. While he admits that scenario can be demoralizing, he says he’s OK with it — but there’s another thing that bothers him.
“I think the misconception about (chemotherapy) treatment is that your hair falls out and you look really sick,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen.”
Steve didn’t lose any hair, but he did gain perspective. He came to learn that cancer is a whole-body sickness. He learned that the mental and physical strain it puts on your body feels like a case of the flu that won’t go away.
But most importantly, he learned that it’s not an individual disease.
“Everybody that’s around you is affected,” he said. “Your wife, your kids, your friends, your coworkers, because they feel so bad for you.”
That’s why when people tell Steve he’s in their thoughts and prayers he thanks them, but asks that they include Wendy, Christopher, Preston and Lindsey — because it’s not just his burden.
Steve and Wendy are kept busy with their regular trips to Jacksonville, but they still find a way to come to Lindsey’s volleyball matches.
Lindsey said they’re doing more than just supporting her and her team in the stands, though.
“After all the games (Steve) goes around and says hi to everyone and is always making sure he puts a smile on people’s faces,” she said.
She also said that her dad’s responding to his current regimen of treatments over at Mayo Clinic.
“His spirit makes such an impact,” Lindsey said. “His fighting spirit.”
You can follow Andrew Huang on Twitter @AndrewJHuang, and contact him at [email protected].