ND-raised hockey standout, teacher Chad Demers aims to fight brain cancer
GRAND FORKS—Chad Demers sat in a booth at Red Pepper in south Grand Forks last week.
He ate grinders with his friend, Tanner Hills. He discussed the expectations for the upcoming season for his old college hockey team, Air Force.
Although it has been three years since he starred for the Falcons and a decade since he scored the game-winning, triple-overtime goal in the North Dakota state title game for Grafton-Park River, Demers looks like he could jump into pro hockey tomorrow if he wanted.
"I feel fine," Demers said. "I feel good. I could go play a hockey game right now. It's hard to believe, when you're feeling good, that I have a serious cancer. It's hard to realize this is real."
Last month, the 27-year-old Demers was diagnosed Grade 4 Glioblastoma, a severe brain cancer. It's the same one that former Sen. John McCain battled.
Doctors originally told Demers he probably had less than two years to live. But after receiving a pathology report back from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., they found that Demers has a rare IDH mutation, which generally extends lifespans in Glioblastoma patients.
"If nothing else, it has given me some hope and some time," Demers said. "They don't know exactly how much time. But I do have some time.
"The one thing with Grade 4 Glioblastoma is that there's no cure. But it's treatable. What that means is where we are in the medical field right now, they can't get rid of my cancer. So, I'll have cancer for the rest of my life unless there's a medical breakthrough. The goal is to keep it in hibernation as long as we can. I'm going to do everything to buy time, and hopefully, however many years it takes, there will be a breakthrough and they'll find a cure."
Demers started radiation and chemotherapy at Mayo on Monday. For six weeks, he will have radiation five days a week and chemo seven days a week.
He'll be receiving a higher dose than what's normally administered, because he's young and healthy.
After that, Demers will come back to Grand Forks and take a month off. Then, he'll start chemo treatments in town for six months. The pattern for those treatments will be five consecutive days followed by a month off.
"I'll do whatever it takes, even if it just buys me a little more time," Demers said.
Finding the cancer
Demers has become known for doing whatever it takes to succeed.
He won a bantam state championship. He had a hat trick in one of his first varsity games. He ended one of the most dramatic state championship games by scoring a triple overtime goal. He was the MVP of the state tournament.
He captained the Fargo Force in junior hockey.
He cracked the top 25 all-time in scoring at Air Force, an impressive feat considering scoring was so much higher in previous decades. He was an alternate captain at the college level.
He made the Dean's List at Air Force Academy four times.
He married his high school sweetheart, Danika.
They had a son, Beau, six months ago and just received an assignment to come back to Grand Forks. They had been living in Los Angeles.
Demers was teaching officer commissioning training for Air Force ROTC students at the University of North Dakota when he started to notice odd symptoms.
He would read a lesson plan, then immediately forget what he had read. He would be teaching a class and forget words.
On Sept. 5, Demers finally went to see a doctor at the Grand Forks Air Force Base to see what was wrong. The doctor initially diagnosed him with anxiety.
"I thought that was strange, because I don't find myself to be an anxious person," Demers said. "But the more I talked to the doctors, the more I started wondering, jeeze, maybe I do have anxiety? I don't know."
But the following day, he had a phone call with Fargo Force head coach Cary Eades. Demers was interviewing to become a volunteer assistant coach. His goal is to become a hockey coach when he's done in the Air Force and this was a good way to get his foot in the door.
But Demers couldn't clear his thoughts during the call with Eades.
"Am I blowing this interview?" Demers thought to himself.
He didn't. Eades said he had the job.
But later in the day, his symptoms got worse and worse. He looked at his keyboard and couldn't make sense of it. He could see the keys, but couldn't put together words. He knew something was very wrong.
The first number on his phone was his brother, Joey's. Chad called him. Joey happened to be in Grand Forks that day and picked him up. They started driving out to the Air Force Base, but doctors there couldn't see him because he didn't have an appointment.
They referred him to the emergency room at Altru in Grand Forks instead.
Within an hour of arriving at Altru, Demers had a CAT scan and an MRI. Doctors informed him that they found a brain tumor.
The next day, Demers had surgery to remove it.
Initially, doctors thought it was a low-grade Glioma. But a few days later, they informed him that they believed it was a high-grade Glioma.
The tumor was sent to Mayo Clinic, where it was examined by a team of doctors to see whether it was Grade 3 or Grade 4.
About a week-and-a-half later, he learned it was Grade 4 Glioblastoma with an IDH mutation.
"I literally had the conversation you see in movies that nobody wants to have, where they tell you that you have 14 months to two years left to live," he said.
"I'm 27 years old. I have a baby. You just don't really ever think something like this is going to happen to you. It's tough when it does happen and you internalize things, you hope it's not going to be bad, and it comes back worse than you thought. That's tough. You ask yourself a lot of questions. Why does this happen? Nobody knows."
Days after learning about the cancer, friends of Demers put up a GoFundMe page.
They set an initial goal of $20,000. They hit that in three hours. They bumped the goal up to $40,000 and hit that seven hours later.
As of Tuesday afternoon, they had raised nearly $120,000.
Donations have come from everywhere. Former former teammates have donated. So have rival Atlantic Hockey coaches, college hockey teams, referees, the Los Angeles Kings, Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman and ESPN anchor John Buccigross.
Because of the donations, Demers' wife, Danika, and son, Beau, will be able to be with him for his entire treatment period in Rochester.
"We have a lot of gratitude toward everybody," Demers said. "It's amazing to see how great people are. We're definitely thankful for all of the support. I feel indebted to a lot of people in this area.
"The support system we have is incredible. Friends, family, people in the hockey community, people we don't even know reaching out to us. It has been amazing. You don't even know how to feel about it sometimes."
Kody Stark, a friend of Demers and a goalie on the 2008 Grafton-Park River title team, has arranged a men's league hockey tournament, Demmy Dangles Cancer, for Nov. 2-4 in Grafton.
There's a Facebook page titled 'Demmy Dangles Cancer' with tournament and contact information for teams interested in participating.
They're hoping to get 12 teams for the first year. Proceeds will go to help Demers with medical costs this year. After that, Demers is determined to raise money for brain cancer research through the tournament.
"Danika and I have discussed that we don't want to just stand by and be passengers on this," Demers said. "We want to be proactive. We want to get involved and be active participants in the fight against brain cancer. We're going to do anything we can do from things like this hockey tournament or getting involved in foundations that support brain cancer and raise money for things like supporting patients and their families as well as supporting research and clinical trials.
"Because, ultimately, if we want to beat this thing, we're going to eventually need a breakthrough. We want to be active in raising money for these trials to hopefully contribute toward saving myself and saving others going through the same thing, rather than just sitting and hoping somebody else saves us."
When Demers learned of his diagnosis, he texted his friend, Tanner Hills, just a short message: "Now the work starts."
With the same determination that led him to a state championship, a tremendous junior hockey career and the Dean's List at Air Force Academy, Demers plans to take on brain cancer.
"You hear success stories, but the tough part for me, mentally, is that a success story is making it like 10 years, 20 years," he said. "That's a success. But I need to make it longer than that, you know what I mean? In 10, 20 years from now, I'll still be young, relatively."