Sebastian Gardner is staring down cancer, for the second time.
Gardner, 24, is a 6-foot-1 midfielder with the PacWest Thompson Rivers University men’s soccer team. He is affectionately known as Seb.
On Dec. 28, 2011 he was called into a Vernon doctor’s office and told he had been diagnosed with cancer. The oncologists narrowed it down to Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia.
“I did my own research on the three cancers and found out what was the ‘best cancer’ to have,” said Gardner, who helps developmentally challenged folks as part of his social work studies.
On Jan. 11, 2012, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which has the highest success rate out of the three cancers he was facing. It is the same cancer that hockey superstar Mario Lemieux overcame in 1993.
“The oncologist told me that there was a 95 per cent chance of overcoming this,” said Gardner, a Fulton grad. “That really turned my spirits around and gave me the strength to take this on.”
He remained positive and never doubted for a second that he could overcome it – it’s just the way he was raised. Gardner comes from an English family that immigrated to Vernon when he was five. He is the oldest of three children. His father, John, is a hard-running defender with the Vernon Camels oldtimers. His mom’s name is Penny.
Gardner started chemotherapy at the end of January back in Vernon.
“I would spend six hours hooked up to an IV getting pumped with four different types of drugs,” he said. “I would feel pretty shitty for the next two or three days, but after that I was fine.”
Gardner was in and out of chemotherapy until the end of June. He hoped to play again in July.
Ten days before his 24th birthday, the oncologists told him that he was cancer free.
“Seb called me after he found out the good news: he was so happy,” said Cassie Drummond, Gardner’s fiancée. “He was out on the streets in Vancouver crying with happiness.”
Gardner was ready to take a crack at soccer again. He started playing in the men’s summer league in Kamloops by the end of last May. He had to miss the odd week or two depending on his chemotherapy schedule, but he still played regularly. He worked hard for the rest of the summer, setting his sights on making TRU’s team out of the August pre-season camp and he did.
The team responded to his return. They went from a team that won three games the previous year to winning seven this past fall. They just missed a trip to nationals and Gardner was named a second-team all-star. Everything was going so smoothly.
Gardner went in for a routine checkup this past January, but something came up. The doctors found something suspicious in his chest. They wanted to be safe, so they booked him for a CT scan.
The cancer was back.
“The news was absolutely crushing,” said Gardner. “Lots of tears and disbelief. I questioned myself, if I brought it back. I felt guilty for every drink I had or any bad food that I ate when I was healthy.”
Oncologists gave him a 40 per cent chance of overcoming this second round of cancer.
“Giving up or giving in never crossed my mind. I believe God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.”
Gardner has a new approach to round two with cancer. He has completely changed the way he lives. Starting with his diet, he has eliminated dairy and alcohol. He says he has cut down his red meat and increased his intake of raw vegetables.
“Right now I take it one day at a time and enjoy life.”
Gardner has some tough work ahead of him. Last week, he went to Vancouver General Hospital for a stem cell transplant. He will be given drugs to harvest the stem cells in his blood and those cells will be frozen and stored for a few weeks. In the meantime, Gardner will be in isolation for two weeks where he will go through aggressive chemotherapy as they wipe out his immune system; it will be an exhausting process.
Afterwards, once his body begins to show signs of recovery, doctors will slowly give the stored stem cells back to him. The goal is to have the stored cells restart his immune system. He will remain in the hospital for a few weeks as he recovers and goes through more chemotherapy.
Doctors like his chances compared to most people because of his physical condition and his young age. Those two factors improve his chances of surviving from 40 per cent to 50 per cent.
It will take him anywhere from six months to a year to fully recover from this round of chemotherapy. Plans of returning to soccer one day are still on his radar.
“Nobody wants to be back on that field in September more than I do. I know it’s a bit of a long shot, but whatever.”
Gardner got engaged to his long-term girlfriend this winter.
“He proposed to me on Dec. 28,” said Drummond. “It was one year to the day when he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. He told me that on this day last year his life was changed in a terrible way. Now, he wanted to change his life in a much happier way.”
Said Seb: “Cassie has been my rock. She is so supportive, she gets me to chemo when I don’t want to go and gets me through some rough days,” Gardner said.
Cassie attends every appointment and chemotherapy session. The two will start planning their wedding later this summer with plans to get married in September, 2014.
“That’s another huge motivator for me,” said Gardner. “I can’t wait to start a new phase of my life with Cassie and start a family.”
Gardner has kept a positive attitude throughout this process.
“I don’t have any doubt in my mind that this will work. I have total faith in the operation,” he said.
He has every reason to complain and give in, but he won’t. He instead pursues good health and takes everything life throws his way as a test.
“Seb likes a challenge, he is very stubborn,” said Drummond. “He won’t ever give in, he is very mentally tough.”