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Unbroken: Umphress defies odds to beat cancer

By Reece Waddell | Published Saturday, February 17, 2018
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Bailey Umphress

Bailey Umphress. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The Chico High School gym was nearly empty. Practice had been over for a while, but senior Bailey Umphress lingered.

As he put up shot after shot, Bailey and his coach, Mark Kyle, engaged in conversation. Kyle quizzed Bailey on specific plays and in-game scenarios, with Bailey answering almost instantly.

Kyle raved about Bailey’s intelligence and passion for the game. He said occasionally, he inserts Bailey and, almost like magic, a play starts to work.

But when asked how many points Bailey averages, Kyle said “only a couple.”

“That’s not what he brings to the team,” Kyle said.

Playing with only one lung and one kidney, Bailey serves as daily inspiration to his coach and teammates – because according to a few doctors, he should not even be alive.

SIX MONTHS TO LIVE

TEAM PLAYER – Bailey Umphress might have only one lung and one kidney, but he still makes plays for Chico basketball. Messenger photo by Mack Thweatt

At the time, Bailey said he thought his childhood was relatively normal.

When he was 6, Bailey and his parents, Keith and Traci, discovered blood in his urine. His father Keith said they suspected just a urinary tract infection.

They paid a visit to their local pediatrician, who referred them to Cook Children’s in Fort Worth. There, doctors performed a sonogram on Bailey’s kidneys, spending well over half an hour examining his right one.

Eventually, doctors completed the scan and returned with a diagnosis: pediatric renal cell carcinoma.

“[The doctor] said ‘It looks like Bailey has a tumor on his kidney, and it will require surgery,'” Keith said. “He said they would have to open him from the back of his chest to the front of his stomach and remove the right kidney.”

The procedure took more than three hours and also resulted in surgeons removing several lymph nodes found to be cancerous.

Doctors told the Umphresses that Bailey was the youngest documented case of renal cell carcinoma, a form of cancer most common in adults 65 and older. According to the American Cancer Society, it has a five-year survival rate ranging from 40 to 90 percent, depending on the size of the tumor and the age of the patient, among other factors.

“I didn’t really understand completely what was going on,” Bailey said. “I just knew something was wrong. I really didn’t feel any sadness. It just seemed like a normal time because I didn’t know any different.”

The next few months consisted of endless trips to doctors for scans and checkups. Shortly after, Bailey and his family traveled to the renowned MD Anderson cancer treatment center in Houston.

Doctors discovered another cancerous spot on Bailey’s right lung during a series of imaging tests.

They gave Bailey six months to live.

“We were just devastated,” Keith remembered.

At 8 years old, doctors had given up on Bailey. MD Anderson sent him home.

“I could tell on my parents’ faces it was something pretty bad,” Bailey recalled. “I could tell by the way they took the information it wasn’t good. It hurt them pretty bad from what I can remember. It was pretty rough.”

THE MIRACLE DRUG

Bailey was not done fighting.

Although MD Anderson had turned him away, Bailey and his parents continued to seek treatment options. In February 2008, surgeons removed Bailey’s entire right lung.

By that time, Bailey was without his right kidney and seven or eight of his lymph nodes. He had been put through the ringer, and both he and his parents hoped that was the end of it.

“The only true cure for renal cell carcinoma is removing the tumor,” Keith said.

The surgery worked for a while, but before long, tests showed another spot – this time near Bailey’s left kidney.

Doctors gave Bailey and his family another dose of gut-wrenching news.

“Our oncologist pretty much laid it out there,” Traci said. “He said, ‘This is pretty much it. We can’t put him through any more major surgeries. We can’t take anything else out.’ Kind of really not giving us any hope. We were just kind of lost.”

Frustrated and knowing they could not remove Bailey’s other kidney, Keith and Traci sought out a new doctor who had a cutting-edge recommendation.

The drug was Sunitinb Malate, brand name Sutent. Widely used with adults who suffer from renal cell carcinoma, Bailey’s doctor said new research suggested it could work for him.

Sutent’s website says the medication, while not a cure, works in two different ways to keep the cancer in check. First, Sutent stops proliferation, or the division of cells. Second, it blocks angiogenesis, or the growth of new blood vessels. Without blood flow, tumors are unable to grow in size.

Bailey immediately started a daily regiment, altering dosages until his doctor found the correct amount.

Within two years, doctors declared him cancer-free.

“It definitely is the miracle drug,” Bailey said. “It showed signs it was stopping the cancer from growing. I take it every day, and ever since I started taking it, the cancer hasn’t grown. I think it’s truly helped a lot.”

A FIGHTING SPIRIT

It’s been over a decade since doctors gave Bailey six months to live. Now, 18 and on the cusp of graduating high school, Bailey is as active and healthy as ever.

There are some obstacles he and his coaches have to work around. Since he has only one lung, Bailey gets fatigued much easier than his teammates.

Bailey typically starts games and plays for upwards of two minutes before needing a breather. He will then rest on the bench and once he catches his breath, goes back in.

“Trust me, my heart thumps every time I see him breathe real hard,” said Chico coach Mark Kyle. “There’s games you look out there and you see him and sub too soon, and he’ll look at [me] and say, ‘Coach, I was fine.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t understand.’ But he’s good about letting me know.”

Bailey may only average a couple of points and rebounds per game, but Kyle insisted his contributions go far beyond the stat sheet. He may not able to play wire-to-wire or for long stretches, but Bailey doesn’t care.

“I’m pretty much [able to lead] a normal life,” Bailey said. “I get tired a lot faster than the other kids, but it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t really hurt my feelings that I can’t go as long. I don’t let it hold me back.”

Bailey plans to attend Dallas Baptist University and become a pilot.

As for the cancer, he still takes Sutent daily and will continue for the foreseeable future. He sees his doctor once every six weeks, and the report the past several years has been the same – no sign of the disease.

Bailey intends on keeping it that way.

“I didn’t like seeing my parents sad or upset,” Bailey said of his determination to beat cancer. “I just tried to keep fighting so I could love my family even more and see them longer.”

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