The founder of Above + Beyond Cancer hears “Thank you,” dozens of times a day, sees smiles getting excavated from deep within during times of hardship and doesn’t go too long without a warm embrace from one of the cancer survivors he’s journeyed with around the world these past two years. But Dr. Richard Deming, whose good friends call him Dick, doesn’t have a sixth sense and therefore isn’t always aware of the effects he’s had on the many lives he’s come in contact with over the years as a radiation oncologist.
Gail Endres has been a part of Above + Beyond Cancer’s Mt. Everest Base Camp and Mt. Kilimanjaro trekking endeavors as well as being a current teammate of Deming’s on this week’s RAAM (Race Across America) as part of an eight-person relay team that includes four other cancer survivors. The 66-year-old prostate cancer survivor has been the other end of the hugs, bears a constant, contagious smile and says ‘Thanks Doc,” often. But there’s something he’s never shared with Dr. Deming – who oversaw Endres’ 39 radiation treatments when his cancer recurred in 2006. Nor has he mentioned anything to his wife or his own mother.
“It’s always been a personal thing,” Endres explained. “I never shared personal feelings in life because that’s what I thought they were – personal.”
Something about the ocean air in California must have been different on the day that RAAM commenced. Endres began reflecting back to when he was 10 years old, the days in which he was conquering the fear of racing his bike downhill with his friends and brothers in Milo, Iowa, which would come in handy over 50 years later.
He spoke of a brother, two years his senior, who died in a tractor accident when he was 12. Gail was the youngest of 10 siblings and 10 years old at the time. He recalls that his brother was helping another one of the boys in the family when the tragedy took place.
“He was always wanting to help,” Endres recalled as he gazed out at the Pacific in his cycling gear, choking up at the memories. “That’s what I remember about my brother. Whatever was needed he always wanted to help.”
For some reason, this bustling boardwalk an hour before the race began was the time Endres chose to open up about the emotional thoughts he’d been bottling up inside all these years. Maybe it was the simple fact that he was getting older. Maybe it’s the quality and quantity of time he’s spent around other cancer survivors from all different backgrounds and walks of life – some who also internalize their feelings but many others who find it more fulfilling to share. Maybe because all these experiences have changed him, changed the way he approaches life.
“I’ve always been a big believer in the power of the human spirit and drawing strength from other people’s spirit,” Endres explained. “Whenever we get in a tough situation, I call on his spirit to give me strength.”
Endres wasn’t too far away from teammates as he shared his innermost feelings, but he was far enough away from them to keep them from hearing. Just a few feet away were fellow cancer survivors Sarah Russell, Brandon Sickler, Bob Irving and Drennan Fischer, and within sight was the doctor who changed Endres’ life.
“He’s got this caring, compassionate personality,” Endres said, looking Dr. Deming’s direction. “And I always drew comparison between that and my brother.”
The relationship between the two began during treatment, with Endres undergoing a long series of radiation therapy. He then joined a program at the YMCA for cancer survivors and frequented spin classes led by Dr. Deming. It’s then led to scaling Africa’s highest peak and trekking to Mt. Everest base camp together and eventually partnering as teammates in a 3,000-mile bike race across the U.S.
“You don’t expect to become friends with your doctor,” Endres said, explaining that usually the contact with other doctors ends when treatment does.
As Endres continued drawing comparisons between his friend ‘Doc’ and his deceased brother, his speech began to slow.
“Dr. Deming’s close friends, they call him ‘Dick,’ and my brother’s name was Richard and we called him ‘Dick.’”
Endres sniffled and fought the tears, not used to sharing anything so personal.
“It’s pretty neat to have a new friend with a namesake like that,” he said quietly. “It’s kind of like having another brother, a replacement brother.”
Endres knew it was time to gather his gear and join his teammates as they prepared to embark on yet another incredible journey. Throughout the week, Endres will often be the rider nominated to handle the steep descents like the ones he faced as a young boy, and together the riders will rise again as a team.
Endres looked over at the doctor turned friend who was sharing smiles and exchanging hugs with other patients and cancer survivors turned friends who ascend new peaks, seek new horizons together.
“And,” he finished. “I love him like a brother.”