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Step aside, melanoma: Chris Pepper is a fighter

In the summer of 2014, life was cruising along for Chris Pepper.

He'd married Stephanie Hall in May, and his two children, Lillian and Gavin, were 1 and 3 years old, respectively. Pepper lived in Clarence and worked for an orthotic and prosthetic company out of the Erie County Medical Center.

Beloved for his boundless energy, positivity and selflessness, Pepper had spent over 20 years as a player in the Buffalo District Soccer League, the last 14 helping run Buffalo Celtic, a branch of a larger local club that now fields four teams across the amateur men's league's five divisions. Back in the early '90s, Pepper was a two-time All-SUNYAC defender for Buffalo State.

Physically fit with a healthy family, Pepper's intention was to play through summer 2016, wrapping up a 40-year playing career and focusing on coaching Gavin into a spark-plug like his father.

Chris Pepper, far right, wore No. 7 as a defender for Buffalo State College in the early 1990s. (via Nick DeMarsh)

Chris Pepper, far right, wore No. 7 as a defender for Buffalo State College in the early 1990s. (via Nick DeMarsh)

But life can throw unexpected punches at good people -- powerful right-hooks insensitive to timing and strong enough to land a knockout blow.

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For Pepper, the bout began one evening in late October 2014 in an awkward moment leaving work. At around 9 p.m., Pepper and Dr. Scott Darling had wrapped up a conversation, and as Pepper turned to walk out of the room, his shirt caught on the door frame, ripping a mole open on his back.

Pepper didn't think much of the incident initially, until the mole bled relentlessly. Concerned, he visited Dr. Mark Burke of ECMC, who removed the mole for a biopsy.

The worrying phone call came on Nov. 13, the dawn of the November Storm: Pepper's pathology report showed a cluster of cells believed to be melanoma, a form of skin cancer.

Such a report could still bring good news; if melanoma cells are removed before the cancer has a chance to spread, a bullet is dodged.

Chris Pepper and his son, Gavin, pose for a photo in October 2015.

Chris Pepper and his son, Gavin, pose for a photo in October 2015.

Pepper will fully admit that fear was a reality for him in the early stages, but he was already mentally prepared to fight. "My outlook was that someone always has it worse than me," he reflected in an interview this week. "The first question was, 'How do we beat this?'"

A week later -- at the tail end of the monumental snowstorm -- Pepper underwent a PET/CT scan, a nuclear imaging process to detect changes at the cellular level, to search for any early onset signs that the cancer cells had spread and affected other organs and tissue.

Finally, good news. Pepper's Facebook update on Nov. 22 read: "My ct/pet scan came back clean and the melanoma hasn't spread from my back! Next step is the surgery and then we'll see from there! Thanks to everyone for your kind words and prayers. Now let's get everyone in the snow storm out and healthy."

After removal of the rest of the cancerous spot on his back, Pepper's doctors at ECMC remained concerned -- they wanted to remove three lymph nodes, two from his left armpit and one from his right, to test them for cancer.

When one of the lymph nodes on the left side showed signs of melanoma, Pepper had to make a crucial decision. Surgery to remove all of the lymph nodes that may be affected, called lymph node dissection, was suggested by doctors at ECMC, but he was aware this approach could do more harm than help.

Gavin, 5, and Lillian, 3, hang out in their Sabres jerseys.

Gavin, 5, and Lillian, 3, hang out in their Sabres jerseys.

It was possible that the melanoma cells hadn't spread beyond the left armpit, and removing several lymph nodes -- which aid in the body's fight against disease -- is a risky endeavor.

Taking ECMC's treatment plan seriously, Pepper still sought other opinions before choosing his path. In the first week of February 2015, Pepper paid visits to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in downtown Buffalo and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass., and the waiting game began.

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During these days of uncertainty -- some riddled with discomfort and fear, others with optimism and joy -- Pepper didn't stop working at East Coast Orthotic and Prosthetic Corp. "I had to wake up and put a smile on my face," he remembers. "I wanted to be an example for my patients. I wanted them to know that it wasn't all about myself."

A month passed, and Pepper still hadn't heard results from Dana-Farber, which was counting on information sent by Roswell. Retracing his steps, he learned that Roswell had failed to forward his medical information.

Frustrated and upset, Pepper asked again, and he finally was connected with Dana-Farber's Dr. Charles H. Yoon, whose progressive take on treating melanoma persuaded Pepper to avoid an aggressive removal of lymph nodes.

The cautious approach worked -- on June 17, the day before his 44th birthday, Pepper received the results of his diagnostic testing: he was cancer free. Admitting that he "felt fantastic," he was able to enjoy the summer with his family, including playing soccer for Buffalo Celtic, traveling to Chautauqua Lake for July 4 weekend and golfing with soccer friends.

"Nothing like the sunset over Chautauqua Lake. Perfect." Pepper's Facebook update on July 2, 2015.

"Nothing like the sunset over Chautauqua Lake. Perfect." Pepper's Facebook update on July 2, 2015.

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As the weather cooled, Pepper's cancer rebelled. An enlarged lymph node was detected on Oct. 5, then removed and sent for tests three days later.

Optimistic as ever, Pepper's Oct. 7 message to update his Facebook friends was upbeat: "So tomorrow I am having a quick outpatient procedure to remove an enlarged lymph node that they found Monday. It's precautionary and proactive in case it comes back as melanoma again. I can't help but feel it's gonna be ok. With Stephanie Hall Pepper by my side I already am winning."

His hunch was wrong. More melanoma cells were spotted, and given the disease's reappearance, chemotherapy was suddenly on the table. When another malignant lymph node was cut from Pepper's left armpit on Nov. 13, he didn't feel well enough to return to work, focusing his remaining energy on the intensifying battle inside himself.

The BDSL veteran defender likens his cancer fight to his style of soccer. "I've never been a very big guy," Pepper admits, "but I've been able to keep playing because I'm scrappy." Still, feeling weaker than ever, the usually energetic Pepper was resigned to more time in bed.

In the first week of December, intense lower back pains plagued Pepper, who took the tough-guy approach, trying to shrug them off as a minor knock that would go away on its own. Concerned for her husband, Stephanie Pepper refused to dismiss this as an unrelated symptom.

"I remember my wife saying, 'Don't you know you've been crying in your sleep the last two nights?'" remembers Pepper, who reluctantly trudged to ECMC on Dec. 7, a trip with which he was already all-too-familiar.

Chris Pepper, right, smiles with his wife Stephanie on Jan. 25, 2016.

Chris Pepper, right, smiles with his wife Stephanie on Jan. 25, 2016.

He's lucky he listened to Stephanie. A PET/CT scan showed that the cancer had rapidly spread from Pepper's armpit to his lungs, liver and gall bladder.

On Dec. 23, with circumstances dire, Dr. Daniel Ford and Dr. Burke prescribed Pepper kinase inhibitors called Taflinar and Mekinist, two powerful drugs that work in tandem to block the protein that fuels the multiplication of cancer cells.

The drugs crippled Pepper. Between their side effects and heavy doses of Oxycodone to battle the pain, Pepper's darkest days were spent in bed -- because he wasn't strong enough to get out. He lost 20 pounds, turned frighteningly pale and started to gray as the calendar turned to 2016.

The statistics for Stage IV melanoma are not hopeful. The 5-year mortality rate is 15 to 20 percent, while the 10-year is 10 to 15 percent, according to Cancer.org's 2008 statistics.

Slowly, though, the inhibitors began to work. Visiting ECMC as many as four times each week -- with Stephanie by his side -- Pepper began to feel more energized, like he was beating cancer one daily fight at a time.

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Buffalo looks after its own, especially when it comes to someone as selfless and positive as Chris Pepper.

Both the SPCA Serving Erie County, where Stephanie works, and ECMC have provided meals and "big bins of food" for the Pepper family. Local t-shirt company 26 Shirts raised almost $2,000 for Pepper's treatment and medicine through the sales of a Bash Brothers t-shirt, featuring burly Bills linemen Eric Wood and Richie Incognito, as well as a Kelly Tough shirt, honoring Jim Kelly's battle with jaw cancer.

26 Shirts' fundraiser for Chris Pepper included a two-week sale of the Bash Brothers, left, and a three-day sale of Kelly Tough.

26 Shirts' fundraiser for Chris Pepper included a two-week sale of the Bash Brothers, left, and a three-day sale of Kelly Tough.

A GoFundMe campaign started by Andy Benzin on Dec. 10 has 240 contributors and raised over $18,000 toward Pepper's medical treatments. Benzin's message on the page was touching:

"When [Pepper] first was diagnosed and asked what he was going to do about treatment the first thing out of his mouth was, "first and foremost I want to be a father first, I want to be able to play ball with my son and not be laid up in the house." He has been putting Steph and the kids first throughout this entire process, never once being selfish. Chris is a genuine person and is always willing to take that extra second to ask how you're doing. He always has a smile on his face and never seems down or in distress. He is so strong willed and positive. So please let’s help Chris. He is so young and has so much more life to live."

12469625_1057834860905004_8675404869316610877_oAt 3 p.m. Feb. 28, SoHo Burger Bar -- and owner Jay Manno, another member of the Celtic organization -- will hold a fundraiser to benefit Pepper. Roughly 300 people have clicked "attending" on the Facebook event, with many more showing interest. For more information, check out the official event flyer.

Smaller -- but not less significant -- helping hands have been meaningful to Pepper.

Close friend and Celtic teammate Chris Ruggiero forces him to get out of the house and go bowling with him once each month, Pepper says with a chuckle.

Manno, Chris Voigt, Bryan Staniszewski and Chris Sullivan -- friends from Celtic past and present -- have taken care of the plans and preparation for Sunday's fundraiser, only allowing Pepper to pick up donation baskets now and then (although, in true Pepper fashion, he wishes he could do more to help).

Pepper's parents have spent time babysitting Gavin and Lillian, who turned 3 on Jan. 26. Hundreds of Facebook messages, phone calls and texts of encouragement have flooded Pepper's devices, an outpouring of love that's left him feeling anything but lonely.

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A magical turn of events came Feb. 17: Pepper's test showed cancer-free lungs, liver and gall bladder. Many called it an answer to prayer, others praised Pepper's perseverance to "kick cancer's ass." He looks healthier now, and he'll return to ECMC -- for work, this time -- on March 1.

"It's absolutely unbelievable how I feel," Pepper says. "I can get out of bed easily. I can jog next to my daughter at my son's soccer practice.

"It's crazy. This must be how skydiving feels. It's amazing."

Pepper's melanoma is in pseudo-remission, as he calls it. In similar cases, a patient whose inhibitors succeed can expect between five and nine months cancer-free, but there's the ever-present reality that the disease will return with a vengeance.

If and when that does happen, the medical bills will soar again. Pepper has already spent $7,000 beyond what his health insurance has covered, and he plans to turn to immunotherapy drugs -- which destroyed President Jimmy Carter's melanoma in 2015 -- if the cancerous cells return.

Over a 12-week span, the progressive treatment -- which thus far has produced impressive results, especially when used in tandem with other similar drugs -- will cost $270,000, Pepper estimates.

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For now, Pepper just wants to enjoy an afternoon with the people he loves. Sunday, at the fundraiser put on by his soccer friends in downtown Buffalo, he will relish that opportunity.

"90 percent of the people helping out come from soccer. It's really the stitch for everyone," Pepper says, still somehow upbeat after 16 roller-coaster months. "It will be a great reminder of how blessed I am."

Email Ben Tsujimoto at btsujimoto@buffnews.com 

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