Greg Estep is a fighter. Always has been, always will be.
As a boy growing up, he was a fighter.
As an athlete in high school, he was a fighter.
As a man facing cancer, he has been a fighter.
Always fighting. Relentless. Never giving up.
It’s been 13 months and 10 days since the Estep family had their lives turned inside out with the news that Greg had Stage 4 cancer. It’s something you never accept, only learn to live with. But it becomes a date that’s etched in the mind, a date that becomes a crossroads in life, a date that is never forgotten.
“It was October 14,” said Pam. “That date will never leave me. He had just come off a weekend going with (son) Chris at an Alabama game. That’s when we got the diagnosis.
“When the doctor told us, you just set there like you’re having an outer-body experience. You’re in disbelief. Your mind can’t absorb it. He looked at me and I looked at him. You go in for what you think are kidney stones and they gave us pretty much a death sentence.”
They performed a CAT scan and found Greg had multiple lesions on the liver and lungs and they didn’t think either was the primary source. They also found it in his esophagus. Then the Esteps were told this sobering statistic: 95 percent don’t make it a year with this stage of cancer. The chemotherapy started immediately and it has been painful. Greg has been in and out of the hospital, sometimes lethargic and tired and mostly without an appetite.
Yet he soldiered on. The fighter in him wouldn’t allow him not to.
Two weeks ago, on Nov. 10, the Esteps made another decision, a gut-wrenching one. They decided to stop the chemo treatments that were ravaging his body. It was a decision they didn’t enter into lightly but a decision that was bathed in much prayer. Greg Estep has drawn close to his pastor, Steve Ruby, and even closer to God throughout the ordeal. He is at peace with what lies ahead.
And so is his wife, the love of his life.
“God’s in control and we both know it,” Pam said.
Greg said the decision was a tough one but what he feels is the right one.
The decision to forgo the chemo treatment was made with Greg’s best interests at the root of it. Eventually, it would have to be his decision to make
“It came down to he had a limited number of chemos that could work on him, that they could use for this cancer,” Pam said. “The first one they thought was best but he had such a bad reaction to it. He had a seizure so we went to another and another one. It made him so ill. We made the decision that it wasn’t worth putting him through that. We decided his quality of life was more important. The family wanted what was best for him.”
They counseled with their pastor and also with Dr. David Goebel, who Pam called “such an inspiration to us.” It was best, they all decided, to stop the chemo. Greg said it was confirmed in his mind when Ruby and Goebel had come to the same conclusion.
“They said the exact same thing and that was it,” he said. “I know my family hated to see me suffer.”
But that doesn’t mean the fight has stopped, nor is it a sign of surrender to the disease. The fight won’t stop. It never will. Not with Greg Estep.
“He’s decided to fight it, live it and trust the Lord,” his wife said.
Don’t get the idea that Greg has given up on being cured, either. The fight is still in him.
“I’ve not stopped, I’m not quitting,” he said. “I’m just approaching it from a different angle.”
While life over the past year has been difficult, it’s also been some of the best times the couple have ever experienced together, his wife said.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Pam said. “I just got over a crying spell. But life has become sweeter because we learned to live it day to day instead of assuming we have a future. It’s a whole new prospective on life and family and what really is important to you. It’s the way we’re intended to live our lives. We all think we’re somewhat invincible. It’s something Greg and I would hope nobody would have to go through.”
Greg Estep has been Pam’s rock since they were high school sweethearts. They married and had two children, Heather and Chris. They now have three grandchildren, the youngest being Will, Chris’s son, who is 8 months old. Heather’s two children are Ethan, 7, and Ella who is 4.
There’s no prouder grandfather, no better father and husband.
“They get away with a lot more than me and Chris ever did,” Heather said.
“We’re supposed to do that,” chimed in Greg. “We’re grandparents.”
When Greg was diagnosed last October, he began assembling some goals. One of them was the birth of his second grandson, Will, and another was to take his grandson to watch his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide play football. He accomplished both of them.
Greg has also been healthy enough to travel some and his classmates from high school took him on a weekend fishing trip in the spring. He also made it to the 35-year high school reunion, another highlight in a year that took on a totally different spin after Oct. 14. Meanwhile, he has stayed positive and remains the rock of the family.
“I told people before, a lot of good came out of this,” he said. “He showed me what kind of courage I had inside me and my faith itself has gotten stronger. It’s brought people together. There’s a reason behind it.”
Not that Greg hasn’t had his own personal pity parties and asked: Why me? But when it comes to blessings, he said he’s had many.
“There are days you do feel bad and feel sorry for yourself,” he admitted. “But then I’d get a phone call from somebody and my spirits would be raised. I want to thank the community, the churches, friends, families, co-workers ... everybody has been in my corner throughout this battle. The cards and letters have been overwhelming. People have said I’m an inspiration to them but my friends have been an inspiration to me.”
Most of all, he said family has carried him through the tough days.
“My family, God bless them. My daughter, son, daughter-in-law, son-in-law and this one right here,” he said, with his arm around his wife. “I’d be lost without her. She has been a lifesaver. We’ve drawn closer than we’ve ever been.”
Their children’s spouses — Heather’s husband Jamey Sellars and Chris’s wife Julie — have been godsends, Pam said. “I do think they’re the best son-in-law and daughter-in-law in the world,” she said.
“He has been my life since high school,” Pam said. “We dated three years in high school and have been married 35 years. He’s taken care of the kids’ lives and been supportive of them in all their endeavors.”
Chris, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a Tomcat quarterback, said the family has approached the cancer like they deal with everything — head-on.
“There’s no game plan,” he said. “You adjust on the fly because everybody’s situation is different.”
Chris has been through the cancer watch before when his wife Julie’s father died from lung cancer a couple of years ago.
“Knowing a little bit of their situation, we kind of know what to expect. But everybody is different. The one thing I’m most thankful of is Dad has been so positive throughout everything. I tell him ‘You’re more brave than you are smart.’’’
Chris has the fighting Estep spirit in him, too. That’s how he played football and basketball for the Tomcats. He lives in Mandeville, La., but calls his mom and dad every day for updates. That’s been the hard part for him, living so far away, as others fight his father’s fight with him.
“Mom and Heather are here fighting it every day,” Chris said. “He puts a smile on even though he’s hurting inside.”
Greg Estep was a mentor to many young football players in the Ashland system throughout the years as a Junior Football League coach. He figured that Ethan could be the first grandchild that he could coach. The illness, though, has kept him from that as well.
“He got to work with Ethan a little bit shooting (basketball) before he got too tired,” Pam said. “Ethan will say ‘My Pappaw taught me how to shoot.’’’
Chris said before his father became ill that he was kidding him and Steve Harvey about “coming out of (JFL) retirement. He said ‘I can coach Ethan but I don’t know if I can coach his mother.’’’
Heather, who is a nurse, said watching her father’s illness progress has been difficult especially with her children. They idolize their grandfather, she said.
“It’s harder for me to watch my kids deal with it,” Heather said. “You kind of take it all in stride when you’re dealing with it day to day. You’re thankful for the days you have.”
Pam said Heather has been someone she can — and does — call on for help at any hour.
“I don’t know if it’s such a good thing to live so close,” she said with a grin.
Heather was also an athlete, like her father. She starred in basketball for the Kittens and brought a competitive fire like her father had to the court.
Her son, Ethan, has a hero who is called Pappaw.
“It was great to hear them talk about going to his first Alabama game,” she said.
The year was not without its setbacks, too, as is to be expected. One big one was the death of Dr. Loren Ledford last Christmas.
“He was there the morning Greg was diagnosed,” Pam said. “He said ‘It’s not good but we’re going to dig in and fight this thing.’ He was such an encouragement and then he was gone. That was devastating. We were friends and I worked with Janice (Ledford, Loren’s mother) for many years. It was more than a doctor-patient relationship. Loren’s death was hard on Greg.”
There are days when fatigue sets in and sleeping is the only option. Fighting the fight of cancer does that to a body.
“I’ve never seen anybody handle this with more courage,” Pam said. “He’s been so positive. He always says ‘we’ll make it.’’’
Greg Estep was a two-sport star for the Ashland Tomcats in the mid 1970s, a quarterback on the football team and a point guard on the basketball team. He had that same fighting spirit then he does today.
Estep was nicknamed “Mad Dog” because that’s how he played sometimes. But “Mad Dog” was always a leader, showing by example what needed to be done, leading with a no-fear mentality that earned respect from teammates and opponents alike. He got the most out of his talent and that winning spirit inside made him a warrior.
The class of 1975, of which both Greg and Pam are members, had its 35th high school reunion this summer. Pam had a previous commitment with her children and couldn’t attend but Greg was there and he enjoyed himself immensely. Several of Greg’s friends from high school took him on a fishing expedition in the spring and Pam says that friends from high school and throughout Greg’s life have been such a support group for both of them that they don’t know what they would have done without it.
“It’s been an inspiration for Greg to read so many messages (on CaringBridge, a website available for those with long-term illnesses),” Pam said. “Longtime friends have called and checked on him. It has meant so much.”
It has been a good year for Greg with more good days than bad, Pam said.
“When I walked him upstairs the other day, he said he was sorry,” Pam said. “I told him there was nothing to be sorry about. If this had happened to one of us, he would take care of us in a heartbeat.”
The Estep family will break Thanksgiving bread together and be thankful for what God has provided them throughout the past year, even with all the trials they have faced. They know better than most that every day is precious.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.