Steamboat Springs He calls it the “systems check.”
Brad Cusenbary has greeted nearly every single day for the last three years the same way: He rolls to the edge of the bed, plants his feet on the ground and waits for the green lights. He runs a diagnostic test through his body, trying to move everything, eager to see what works and what doesn’t. He’s checking to see what abilities his body has won back from the brain tumor that changed his life and where the aftereffects of that disease still cling.
Sometimes the news is good, lots of greens. Frequently, it’s not. Either way, more than three years after he first was diagnosed, Cusenbary’s status is still day-to-day.
Some days, the news from the systems check is great. A month ago, Cusenbary ran through his tests just before climbing into bed and found something awesome.
For the first time in years, he moved the toes on his right foot.
“He was upstairs, and I was downstairs reading,” said Cusenbary’s wife, Laura. “He came down like a freaking lightning bolt, yelling, ‘Look at this!’”
It may seem like a small accomplishment from afar. Cusenbary once was one of Steamboat Springs’ premier cyclists, an annual challenger in the city’s weekly Town Challenge Mountain Bike Race Series. In fact, few were more active in that community. He presided over the local trail building and cycling advocacy club, Routt County Riders, and partnered with fellow local Katie Lindquist to found a series of races and events.
The revived Tour de Steamboat was one of the products of that partnership, and the then-healthy Cusenbary helped make the decision to direct the annual ride’s proceeds to the Sunshine Kids Foundation, which helps children fighting cancer.
That Tour returned Saturday with its largest field. Nearly 700 cyclists swarmed along three road cycling routes in and around Routt County.
Neither the war against cancer nor the recovery from it have gone smoothly for Cusenbary, but he won the big one and has been winning more and more battles recently. He skied some last winter, has been working when he can and even started riding a bike again — not as the fierce mountain bike champ he once was but as a regular guy riding a three-wheeled cruiser through downtown and, he said with a laugh, “to the bar.”
That guy nearly woke the neighborhood when he moved his right toe? Definitely.
“It’s cool, exciting,” he said. “It was a victory.”
Most days, the news from the systems check is neither good nor bad. It’s simply nothing.
Cusenbary said he’s learned plenty of lessons about life and love since his diagnosis.
The outpouring of support he found when he first revealed his condition has yet to stop, and his wife, Laura, continues to amaze him.
“She is my hero,” he said, working carefully through the words, fighting off a stutter that’s one of the most evident lingering side effects. “Cancer gets you down, but Laura constantly picks me up, and I’m difficult.”
The lesson he’s processing now is one about patience, something he wasn’t known for before cancer.
He made it through much of the first year of treatments without outwardly obvious side effects. They came on hard in early 2010, however. The tumor was located near the part of his brain that controls motor skills and speech. Even as the mass died — the walnut-sized lump was all dead cells last time doctors checked — his brain swelled, and his motor skills and speech abilities dissipated quickly.
He’s spent the past two years trying to regain those functions.
The successes have come in small increments, one toe wiggle at a time.
He still speaks with a halting stutter, pausing sporadically as his eyes tighten their focus and his hand raps the table. It looks like he’s searching for the right word, and in a way he is. He said his brain is running at full speed, as it did four years ago — it’s his mouth that doesn’t keep up.
He occasionally looks to Laura for help but thrives on clearing the hurdles himself, the frustration of a hangup washed away by a grin when he’s back on track, his words flowing more smoothly.
“Thoughts, clear,” he said. “Communication, it depends on the day.”
He’s getting better. Small clumps of words frequently now come without any hitches, his personality bleeding through in pithy, often self-aware remarks. It’s only when he sings — relying on the well-known country rhythms and lyrics — that he’s truly free of the tumor’s shackles. Precious few ears are allowed into that show.
“Solo,” he said. “I only sing for the dogs.”
But every tune he belts out and every sentence he strings together is a step, a positive check mark on his daily systems update.
Forced to consider when he expects all the indicator lights to report back green, Cusenbary only can wince. It’s the patience thing again. He’d hoped to be skiing again by the 2010-11 winter but instead was at a low point in his treatment and back in a hospital that December.
All the recent reports have been positive, but he’s wary of a Wednesday appointment in Denver. There’s no particular reason to worry, but he can’t help but fear that a scan will find something.
Nevertheless, he keeps pushing forward, harboring low day-to-day expectations for his recovery but big dreams for the long term.
The Tour de Steamboat helps.
“I’ve thought about stepping back,” Cusenbary said. "But the kids. Every time I thought that, I thought, ‘No, no. The kids.’”
He said the children of Sunshine Kids draw hope from the organization and thus his efforts, but he admitted the event gives him hope, as well. It’s a confidence booster, something he still can do, something he’s never not been able to do.
There’s so much he still can do, and he said he’s still plowing through rehab therapy and exercises, eager to regain more function and more ability.
“Every day is hard,” he said. “But there’s hope. I have hope.”
In the end, it’s that attitude that’s there every day when he kicks his feet over the side of the bed. After more than three years battling the tumor, hope still is the great big green light shining every time he runs a systems check.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com