Each day Chris Duncan descends to the finished basement room inside his West County home. There he pedals an exercise bike for at least 30 minutes, sometimes 45. Noticeably thinner than two months ago, he will supplement the ride with some stomach crunches and some leg exercises — almost anything except for heavy lifting.
Duncan’s time on the bike is hardly stationary.
He looks ahead to see a picture of him alongside his father and idol, longtime Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. They are leaning against a dugout railing during a spring training game. The shot is taken from behind with the son still in uniform as a Cardinals outfielder.
While pedaling, Chris glances down at an erasable message board.
I Am Confident
I Am Strong
I Am 100 Percent Relentless
I Am Domination
Duncan continues to pump. He is going places. He’s been to hell and is working his way back.
Fourteen months after his mother, Jeanine, was diagnosed with a significantly more advanced manifestation, the 31-year-old Duncan learned eight weeks ago he was suffering from glioblastoma, a malignant cancer that had grown to four centimeters by six centimeters on the left side of his brain.
The condition is as sinister as its name. Asked to spell out the condition, Duncan says, “I haven’t looked it up. I don’t want to know. It’s bad stuff.”
“Little Dunc” knows enough.
For weeks he would experience a metallic taste in his mouth followed by seizures that grew progressively longer. Chris’ newlywed wife, Amy, researched the symptoms and came up with several possibilities, including epilepsy. Cancer was another.
Duncan was raised to play through pain. For months he tried to play despite a degenerative disc condition so painful that it caused him to weep in pain when trying to sleep. Duncan eventually required rare surgery to receive a prosthetic. He played with a hip condition for much of 2009 until dealt in July to the Boston Red Sox. Duncan never played another major-league game.
Chris is his father’s son. Catching for Class A Modesto, Dave suffered a broken wrist during the 1966 season. He was sidelined only two weeks en route to hitting 46 home runs. Two years later, while playing for Vancouver in the Pacific Coast League, the elder Duncan was beaned in the first game of a doubleheader. He was transported to a nearby hospital, treated, discharged — and returned to play the second game. As a coach, the 60-something Duncan could intimidate accomplished players with silence.
Amy tried to cajole Chris into seeing a doctor but didn’t succeed until he suffered a seizure and blacked out for five minutes during a late September segment of the radio show he co-hosts for WXOS (101.1 FM). A scan discovered the malignancy and surgery was performed 10 days later at Duke Medical Center, the same facility where Jeanine underwent a procedure to address Stage IV cancer the previous year.
“It was like another injury. He had the hernia, the neck, the hips and head. We don’t have anything else,” Amy says.
Doctors couldn’t get to all of Jeanine’s cancer, a plum-sized malignancy that had spread its tentacles throughout much of her brain. Wafers were implanted to combat the disease and Jeanine remains active. She fights.
Chris’ malignancy was categorized as 95 percent Stage II (early locally advanced), 5 percent Stage IV (metastasized). The family has adopted a mantra of optimism that welcomes prayers but rejects sympathy.
“During the course of your life there are things that happen that are really good and positive,” the father says during a Thursday morning drive. “You appreciate those things and don’t get carried away with them. It’s the same when something bad happens. It’s there. It exists. You deal with it in the most productive way you can. You don’t have a pity party. You deal with the issues that confront you and make intelligent decisions that hopefully work out.”
Duncan retired as pitching coach last December to be with his wife. They had established a new routine that includes trips to Duke every other month. To be sucker-punched by Chris’ diagnosis proved doubly cruel.
“When you see it in a child, it’s different. It was so different. It slammed me,” Jeanine recalls. “It was one thing dealing with myself. (Chris’ diagnosis) knocked me out of my shoes. It killed me.
“My children are my life. Chris’ attitude has been so good he’s made it easy on me. He’s got a great attitude. He’s dealing with this well.”
Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was among the first outside the Duncan family to hear about Chris’ diagnosis. His initial reaction: “It’s so completely, incredibly unfair.”
Duncan required a 6½-hour surgery Oct. 10 that included removing part of his skull. Unconscious for the first half of the procedure, Duncan was roused to read flash cards as surgeons probed his brain for the final three hours. Since a brain contains no nerves, Duncan felt nothing.
Placed into coma as part of his recovery, Duncan awoke several days later. Swelling in the brain left him unable to communicate for about 72 hours. Six days following surgery Duncan remained incapable of saying his name. The seventh day brought remarkable improvement. He spoke more easily. His personality returned.
“My fear was that he would lose his personality,” Jeanine says. “I didn’t know what to expect for him. Chris’ personality is so strong, it’s who he is. I didn’t want that to be lost.”
Chris found both inspiration and better understanding of his condition through his mother’s experience. He calls her “tough as nails” while noting the grace she has demonstrated within a brutal process.
“I don’t think there’s any way I could have handled it this way without learning from her,” Chris says. “I’ve been extremely lucky to have her example.”
Amy drives 'Little Dunc’ to the radio station each Monday. There, Chris records commercials and participates in give-and-take with staff and his co-hosts, Randy Karraker and D’Marco Farr. The rest of the week involves doing research and doing appearances on the show over the phone.
Jeanine knows treatment will be with her the rest of her life. Chris has 2½ weeks left of radiation and chemotherapy. He also administers daily shots to his stomach to combat a blood clot that formed in his left arm. (Pills offer greater possibility of stroke.) The clot is the reason the former slugger has not returned to a weight-lifting regimen.
Duncan doesn’t talk about the odds he faces. He doesn’t want to know. Doctors believe they removed all of his cancer but only time will validate the diagnosis.
“I’m staying optimistic about it,” says Duncan, who wears a question mark-shaped scar while dealing with residual swelling. “I’ve competed my whole life. I worked for what I got in the game. To me, this is another competition. I’m not letting this beat me. I’m doing to do whatever gives me the best chance.”
“Some days he’s my inspiration,” Jeanine says. “He gets on with this life. He hasn’t let it slow him down. He does his workouts and his radio prep. I feel so fortunate he’s been ale to deal with it. He could have gone the other route.”
As a player, Duncan employed visualization to help him prepare for an opponent. As a cancer patient, he has adopted the same tactic.
Chris sees the life awaiting him and Amy and envisions watching his brother Shelley’s 5-month-old twins playing sports in high school.
It is amazing the places one can reach on a stationary bike.