Local woman using Chiefs' Berry as inspiration for her fight with cancer

Alyssa Crabtree remembers first hearing about Eric Berry’s diagnosis. Contributed photo Alyssa Crabtree, 24, poses with Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry with her home-made sign following the team’s training camp practice on Wednesday, Aug. 5 in St. Joseph, Mo. A 2009 Platte County High School graduate, Crabtree was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Berry, 26, was diagnosed with lymphoma late last season and recently returned to practice just eight months later.

The news broke toward the end of the 2014 season for the Kansas City Chiefs star. A 25-year-old player in the National Football League, athletic and healthy, had been diagnosed with Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

Little did Crabtree know that her favorite player would end up serving as inspiration for her own battle with a very similar cancer.

Very recently diagnosed with large b-cell lymphoma, Crabtree, 24, knew that Berry had returned to practice with the Chiefs to start training camp, which just so happens to take place in St. Joseph, Mo., about 45 minutes north of her home. So she decided to make the trip last week, and with a little help from her baby brother and social media, Berry took time after the workout to meet Crabtree and talk to her about her current struggle.

Crabtree, her bald head from the chemotherapy treatments under a Chiefs cap, proudly held a sign that read: “FUTURE LYMPHOMA SURVIVOR (JUST LIKE BERRY)”.

“You don’t really hear of an NFL player being diagnosed with something like that,” said Crabtree, who now lives near Parkville, Mo. “I even put something up on my Instagram about how he was my favorite player and that I was thinking about him and praying for him. I just kind of really felt for him. Now that I have been diagnosed with a similar thing, I definitely understand what he went through and kind of the hell he had to go through to come back and get out on that field.

“It’s kind of crazy how he was my favorite player before, and we both got diagnosed with lymphoma.”

A 2009 graduate of Platte County High School, Crabtree always enjoyed an active lifestyle. She played basketball and soccer and ran track and cross country during her high school career. Running remained her favorite way to stay in shape, and hunting and fishing were regular activities.

Crabtree graduated from the University of Missouri and works for Cerner Corporation, recently settling down to live with her boyfriend of two-plus years, Taylor Crane.

Life seemed normal.

Then in April, Crabtree started to feel different. Pain in her shoulder. A crackling noise in her chest. Coughing up blood.

“I kind of had an intuition I guess you could say. It just didn’t seem right,” Crabtree said.

Doctors originally diagnosed her with pneumonia, but there was a worse affliction that had led to the pneumonia. While on a business trip, her condition deteriorated, and she went in for X-rays and a CT scan. They revealed a large cancerous mass in her chest.

Doctors told her the lymphoma diagnosis represented a positive scenario, and they wanted to start treatment and gave her a good prognosis.

“I was told my best-case scenario was that I had lymphoma, and hearing that is your best-case scenario, you have to wonder what your worst-case scenario is,” Crabtree said. “I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel since I was told that initially. Somebody out there has it worse than you. You always have to think that, and I feel for those people.

“That puts things in perspective.”

Just as Berry’s diagnosis came as a shock to Chiefs fans, those who knew Crabtree — nicknamed Waterbug or Bug early in her basketball career at Platte County — were taken aback to hear the news.

“Great kid. I didn’t get to see her much after (high school),” Platte County cross country, girls basketball and track and field coach Chris Stubbs said. “I’d run into her different places and she always had a smile on her face, positive attitude. I was devastated when I found out.

“If anyone’s going to fight through it, she’s got a wonderful attitude and good family. She’ll be the one to fight through it.”

Family, friends and Crane rallied around Crabtree after the initial diagnosis on June 21. Treatment included intense rounds of chemotherapy, scheduled for every three weeks for four months.

Crabtree spends four straight days in the hospital during those bouts.

The worst part comes when she leaves to go home. She said the nausea and side effects keep her inside for the first week after the chemotherapy. On medical leave from work, she spends a lot of time reading and relies on others, especially Crane, to help keep her on a normal routine.

“When I’m in the hospital, I’m there for four days getting continuously pumped with chemo,” Crabtree said. “I feel actually somewhat good in the hospital when I’m getting my chemo treatments. They keep me really comfortable, and they have anti-nausea (medication) and everything. I don’t have any problems there. It’s when I come home.

“That week after, that whole week after, I get really low, and it’s kind of a struggle.”

But there’s always that one week where Crabtree gets a reprieve. She tries to plan as many activities as possible during that time period, chances to get out of the house and feel normal again.

Crabtree and family members did just that with Chiefs training camp on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Caleb Crabtree, Alyssa’s 18-year-old brother and recent Platte County graduate, saw a chance to make the trip even more special. He had already “shaved his hair a little shorter than he would typically like” in a sign of solidarity with his sister, but Caleb went a little further the night before the trip.

From his Twitter account, Caleb sent out some pictures of him and his sister with this note, “My sister is battling lymphoma & would love to meet @Stuntman1429 tomorrow at training camp. Plz rt so he’ll notice,” tagging the Chiefs’ safety in an attempt to set up a meeting. Steven St. John, a sports radio host at WHB 810, saw the plea and decided to help.

“It’s just been really tough on our family, and she’s just really inspired by Eric Berry, by him defeating cancer and already getting back on the field,” Caleb said. “I just wanted to give it a try for myself. I didn’t know if it would go through our not, but I gave it a shot and it happened.”

With St. John’s help, the Crabtree family watched practice from a VIP tent adjacent to the practice field.

After practice, Berry sauntered up the hill at Missouri Western State University and met with Crabtree. The conversation lasted about 10 minutes, talking about diet, side effects of treatments and taking the battle one day at a time. Berry posed for some pictures.

Most importantly, he gave a girl he had never met before increased hope. A three-time Pro Bowl performer, Berry enters his fifth season with a lot of questions to answer. The Chiefs have eased their 2010 first round pick back into practice, holding the safety out from full contact until recently, and there’s no guarantee when he can play in a game again.

But what he’s already accomplished to be back at practice just eight months after his diagnosis shows that lymphoma can be beaten — and beaten quickly.

“It means a great deal,” Crabtree said. “He’s a great person. He’s very humble. I thank him a lot for that. “He’s a huge inspiration, and it’s very motivating to see him out there so early, able to run and make interceptions and be out there with his teammates.”

Crabtree continues to shift her focus to returning to her normal activities.

Two days after meeting with Berry, she went to the Shania Twain concert at Sprint Center, a special request that forced her third of six planned chemotheraphy treatments to be pushed back a day. Soon, she hopes there will be a final four-day stay in the hospital before full recovery begins.

Crabtree already made that promise to get to a late season game to see Berry again.

The Chiefs have five home games between Sunday, Nov. 29 and Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Any of those dates could match up with Crabtree’s plans to defeat cancer and be ready to see Berry again.

Maybe they can meet up in person again after Berry plays and with Crabtree holding a different sign, removing the word future and allowing two survivors to talk about life and not cancer.