After one bout with kidney cancer, it seemed Ryan assistant football coach Eric Lokey was the winner of a fight that required kidney removal and 28 stitches in his stomach.
And after months of no signs of recurrence, cancer decided it wanted a rematch with Lokey.
With his faith, family and a strong network of supporters in his corner, Lokey is back to win another fight with the disease. This time it’ll be much more difficult.
Lokey has Stage IV renal cell carcinoma, which is the highest level a cancer can be diagnosed. A cancer is diagnosed as Stage IV when it spreads to other organs in the body, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“When you hear that, it just scares you to death and everything,” Lokey said. “It’s pretty serious, but it’s not something that can’t be beat. We’re in for a fight, that’s for sure.”
Lokey has a tumor in his liver and a tumor in his lung. The tumors have not grown since they’ve been spotted, but they’re there.
Even with his cancer, Lokey was out in the heat during Ryan’s summer football workouts, helping the Raiders prepare for the upcoming season. And if Lokey has it his way, he’s not going to let cancer stand between him and the field.
“I’m planning on not missing a beat for this season,” Lokey said. “It shouldn’t get in the way of any games or anything like that. It’s just one of those hurdles in life that you’ve got to get over.”
According to the National Cancer Data Base, 13.75 percent of those diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2010 were diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.
This season will be Lokey’s 11th season at Ryan as an assistant coach, and he’s built a reputation for consistently having some of the best defensive linemen in the nation.
Ryan head coach Joey Florence said everybody was shocked when Lokey’s cancer resurfaced. When Florence was at Rockwall, he played middle school football against Lokey when he was at North Mesquite.
Florence said that in the spring his sociable, tough-minded assistant coach would drive to Houston for treatments and checkups and come back to work, while the other Ryan assistants collectively picked up where Lokey left off.
“It’s been business as usual, as far as working,” Florence said. “But at the same time, you’ve got this tremendous fight ahead of him that we’re all aware of, and that’s what he’s doing right now. He starting the fight, and we’ll be there for him through that, too.”
In April, the 47-year-old went to the doctor for his second checkup to make sure the cancer had not returned. Lokey and his wife, Debi, sat in the doctor’s office as they received the news and asked what they needed to do to improve Lokey’s chances of survival and win the fight.
For starters, the Lokeys switched to a vegan diet while they tried to secure a spot at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Lokey’s chances of surviving longer could increase. The fight had begun.
Standing, fighting together
If somebody calls Lokey’s cellphone and he doesn’t answer, they won’t hear his calm, deep voice filled with tones of his Texas roots. Instead, they’ll hear the voice of his wife, who will kindly tell callers to leave their information and her husband will get back to them.
When Lokey was a freshman at Stephen F. Austin, before he became an All-America linebacker, he was at SFA’s freshman orientation and a “Casino Night” mixer put on by the university.
He noticed a woman who got excited because something good apparently had happened. Lokey looked at her, turned to his friend and said, “See that blonde right there? That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
Eric and Debi Lokey have been married for 28 years and have three sons. The duo is in the midst of fighting Lokey’s cancer together. Debi Lokey has joined her husband in his vegan diet and taken a leave from work to tend to him.
As he’s fought through the cancer, Debi’s kept a journal of the whole situation at www.CaringBridge.org, where she regularly posts updates on how things are going with the couple.
She said they’ve lived in 20 houses and eight towns, as his coaching career and her career in education as either a teacher or a principal has built a network of people they know, and she wanted to keep everybody informed.
“My biggest fear is that somebody that we cared about would get some wrong information and hear a rumor, and not have accurate information and be hurt by it,” Debi Lokey said.
Their son Taylor said his father has been told by several people that he was the picturesque version of what a healthy man’s lifestyle consists of. Taylor said it only took a couple of days after the second diagnosis of the cancer for his parents to start doing what they could to combat the disease.
“It wasn’t long after they initially got the news that they were in fight mode,” Taylor Lokey said. “They were ready to go, and they’ve been that way ever since.”
On Lokey’s CaringBridge page, there’s a section where photos can be posted. There are many photos of wrists, all donning orange rubber wristbands with the phrase “Lokeystrong” on one side.
On the other side is the phrase “No One Fights Alone,” a motto that’s proven true during Lokey’s bout with cancer.
The idea came from one of Lokey’s former players, Nick Rinks. Rinks modified the phrase of the Lance Armstrong cancer campaign that featured “Livestrong” on bright yellow bracelets.
Debi Lokey originally ordered 250 orange bracelets. Then another 250 were ordered. Then that wasn’t enough, so she ordered another 350 bracelets.
She estimates that about 75 bracelets are left. She also said she received a call from the Ryan football booster club, saying the entire varsity team will be wearing the bracelets in honor of its assistant coach.
People have taken pictures in Italy, Switzerland and Times Square showing their support for Lokey.
“You don’t feel alone anytime that you know that there’s a team of warriors behind you,” Debi Lokey said. “Eric and I have been in athletics our entire life. We know the concept of team. We’re stronger because of the people behind us.”
Debi said she received a card from the Bible study class of one of her co-workers from Silsbee to show their support of Eric.
“We don’t know those people from Adam, but they’re praying for Eric,” Debi Lokey said.
Beating the cancer
As for the actual battle with the cancer, Eric Lokey is entering fairly uncharted territory.
Lokey said he’s one of only two people at MD Anderson who is taking an experimental trial of vaccines designed to strengthen the immune system and eventually cause the tumors to shrink and disappear.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved what he’s taken, a cocktail of two vaccines to cure Lokey’s ailment. Lokey said he e-mails the cancer center every day to let the doctors know of any side effects. It’s a 12-week process with four individual doses taken during that time.
Over the last week, Lokey has experienced nausea, fatigue and a loss of appetite, among other stomach-related side effects.
“You’re kind of a guinea pig,” Eric Lokey said. “It’s kind of scary sometimes.”
Lokey is hoping future scans are more promising and the cancer is gone when the treatment process is over.
But all it takes is a look at all the bracelets, all the votes of support and all the prayers being offered, and it’s easy to see that the coach is far from alone in his battle.
And if there’s anybody who believes in him the most, it’s the blonde he met at Casino Night.
“I don’t know why this has happened to him, but I know there’s a purpose bigger than us,” Debi Lokey said. “If anybody can beat this, my husband can beat it.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.