THE VILLAGES, Fla. (AP) — When John Brake heard the unwelcome news from his doctor in April, he had a life-altering decision to make.
Brake had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and doctors had given him just six months to a year to live.
So Brake faced a choice: Did he want to spend his time moping, watching TV and being angry at the world, or did he want to fight back and reclaim what little time he had left?
He chose to make the best of his situation and get back to doing what he loves — playing softball. Seven months after the diagnosis, Brake still is playing in The Villages Men’s Recreation League.
It’s a fight that has left his peers in awe.
“Knowing that he doesn’t have much time left and he’s playing, well, we all love him,” softball teammate Jack Skelly said. “It’s one of those feel-good stories.”
Of course, it hasn’t always been a feel-good story.
After the diagnosis and a few rounds of chemotherapy, Brake had lost a lot of weight and wasn’t feeling like himself.
The chemotherapy had hit Brake hard — so hard that he calls it the worst month of his life.
Brake was alive, but he wasn’t living. He couldn’t do any physical activity — no softball, no golf, he barely could walk.
“I was looking bad, looking like I was a dead man,” Brake said.
Upset at his failing condition and ineffective treatments, he decided to discontinue chemotherapy and see what would happen.
“I knew it wasn’t going to cure anything,” he said. “They said it might give me a little better quality of life, which it didn’t. So I just said, ‘That’s it; it is going to go whatever way it goes.’”
The way it went was up.
Brake was determined to sink or swim on his own. He had no idea it would turn out to be one of the best decisions he ever made.
Coming back to life
Brake started eating more, getting back up to his normal weight. He felt much better. He started getting out of the house more, even finding the strength to play a little golf.
“There is no time to be sitting around watching the idiot box in the daytime when you could play golf,” he said.
He continued to get out, get back in shape and put back on the weight he had lost during chemotherapy treatments.
After golf, the next step was to go back to something he loved, something he had been missing — the softball diamond.
“Around late August and early September, I got feeling really good again,” Brake said. “Eating like a horse, put some weight on, so I thought, ‘Hell, I’ll try softball.’ Came back and here we are.”
Brake had missed the summer season because of knee surgery, never thinking the season before might have been his last.
Now, he’s finally back, and this time he’s not taking anything for granted.
Gaining back his strength
During the darkest times, the option to play softball wasn’t something that he or his family thought ever would present itself again.
“He wasn’t feeling so good. We never thought he would feel good again,” Brake’s daughter, Jennifer Raines, said. “I didn’t think he was going to get his strength back.”
Brake didn’t tell his teammates about his illness. He just played like he always had. Since he already had missed a season because of the knee procedure, it wasn’t unusual that he was out of softball shape.
Then, the rumors started.
“The stories started coming out about his terminal cancer,” Skelly said. “And it was really somewhat of a lifter for all of us to see a guy playing like that.”
But it wasn’t just the illness that made people take notice, it was the level of play and the happy-go-lucky demeanor radiating from Brake in the dugout.
“At first, you think that he can’t be strong enough to play,” Skelly said. “I think the first or second time up, he hit a home run. So at that point it was like, ‘Wow, where did this guy come from?’ And he is always cheering in the dugout, he is always up.”
“I’d gotten to feel pretty good,” Brake said. “I’m not on pain meds or anything.”
An inspiration to all
Suddenly, Brake wasn’t just a teammate coming back from knee surgery, he was an inspiration to his league mates.
They saw a man who was near death only a few months earlier, a man who at one point was a shell of himself. They saw a man who made a concentrated effort to change his life for the better, not with medicine or through doctors, but with old-fashioned determination.
They thought about what decisions they would have made — would they be as happy to be on the diamond as Brake was? Would they even be playing softball at all?
“To be up when you have terminal cancer is really a good thing for him, and (it’s) a good thing for all of us to see that,” Skelly said. “It’s really been a good thing for us — the whole league — to notice.”
Brake’s daughter noticed the change, as well. The man she had been watching fade away in front of her eyes suddenly was back on the field legging out a triple.
“I am so glad he is out here playing again,” Raines said. “I am absolutely thrilled. It’s the best.”
Brake knows he is fortunate to still be playing softball, and he doesn’t plan on wasting any of the moments he has left.
“I figured I would be dead by now, frankly,” he said. “So why not ride it as long as you can?”
Information from: Daily Sun (Lady Lake, Fla.), http://www.thevillagesdailysun.com