ST. LOUIS — Chris Duncan would rather you didn’t know that he has brain cancer.
“I don’t want a bunch of people to feel sorry for me, thinking I’m going to die. I’m not scared,” he says. “That’s not how I want to live my life.”
You surely wouldn’t know what Duncan is dealing with when listening to him banter about on his daily radio show. Listen to him discussing such topics as man sodas, boomskies and tight cheeks and you wonder where all that personality was hiding when he played for the Cardinals. Hear him and co-host Anthony Stalter do their weekly spot with Dave Duncan, Chris’ dad and one of the most successful pitching coaches of all time, and you think there is hope for sports talk on the radio.
But in this part of the world, if you follow sports, you know that Chris Duncan underwent surgery last fall to remove a glioblastoma, regarded as the deadliest type of brain tumor.
You know that Chris learned of his tumor barely a year after his mom, Jeanine, was diagnosed with an even more dangerous glioblastoma.
You know that Dave Duncan stepped down from his post as Cardinals pitching coach in the summer of 2011 to take care of his wife, which he did devotedly until she died last month.
Still, there is plenty you might not know about brain tumors, Duncan and his rising star in sports media.
When Duncan failed to hit .200 for a third straight minor league season in 2010, he decided enough was enough. Tired of playing hurt, weary of the travel, frustrated by not being in the majors, he headed home to St. Louis, where his wife, Amy, had found a job.
In five big league seasons, including a 22-homer campaign in the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series run, Duncan tolerated the media like he tolerated the fans who dogged him for making the team because he was Dave’s kid. But when he started contemplating life after baseball, guess what?
“The first thing that came to mind was radio,” Duncan says. “I made a goal that I wanted to become a radio star.”
Why not? He grew up in a baseball family loving sports. He was a three-sport star at Canyon del Oro High School just north of Tucson. When he visited his dad in the summers before he became a pro, Duncan enjoyed reading local Cardinals coverage. Though most players don’t read the papers — or so they claim — Duncan continued to scour the stories long after he was drafted in the first round by the Cardinals in 1999 (the Albert Pujols draft, by the way).
Duncan was unlike many players who transition into the media in other ways, too. From his first gig in 2011, he impressed his new colleagues with his humility and work habits. He watched every Cardinals game, usually more than once. He studied stats, frequented the ballpark, asked the right questions and proved the kind of guy you want to work with.
During his first season, Duncan was on the phone with his co-host, Brian Stull, when Tony La Russa opted to bring in lefty Brian Tallet instead of Trever Miller. As Stull, who was at Busch Stadium, and Duncan, who wasn’t, second-guessed the move, Duncan suggested that Stull ask La Russa about his reasoning after the game.
La Russa answered vaguely at his postgame news conference and politely admonished Stull the next day for questioning the move. Stull then filled in Duncan on the skipper’s reaction.
“The next day, Dunc came down to the ballpark, went into Tony’s office and said, ‘Hey, I want you to know I asked Stully to ask that question,'” Stull recalls. “Dunc didn’t have to do that. Tony had no clue I was talking to Dunc about that. When I found out, I already was impressed with him, but the deal was sealed. He was a great teammate.”
In that first season at 101 ESPN, Duncan was part of a three-man rotation of ex-Cardinals who took turns co-hosting a nightly baseball show with Stull. With a delivery that was entertaining and concise, Duncan didn’t take long to separate himself. By the end of the season, the Baseball Tonight show had become the Stully and Duncan show.
Their show lasted only a few months before Duncan was given another promotion, joining 101’s afternoon drive-time show with Randy Karraker and former Rams defensive tackle D’Marco Farr. Earlier this year, Duncan was moved up yet again when he became the centerpiece of a midday show with Stalter.
Duncan proved such a hit on radio that he was approached by FOX Sports Midwest to appear on pregame and postgame Cardinals telecasts in 2012.
“From the first day, he hit it out of the park,” says coordinating producer Allan Flowers, who just left FSMW for the NFL Network. “He’s knowledgeable, a quick study, and the passion is there.”
Might more TV be in his future?
“The possibilities are endless,” Flowers says. “I’m not sure where he got it from, but he’s a natural explaining baseball on television.”
No one knows why a healthy mom and the younger of her two sons were stricken by a cancer that most often is found in 50-and-over males, though Duncan says studies to find a link are ongoing.
What is known is that of the dozens of types of brain tumors, glioblastoma is considered the most deadly. Life expectancy depends on numerous factors, but between one and two years is often cited by online sources.
Michael Weiner, executive director of baseball’s player union, was diagnosed last summer to have an inoperable glioblastoma. Speaking at a luncheon with baseball writers before last week’s All-Star Game, Weiner said he no longer has movement in his right side and has been confined to a wheelchair.
Former Phillies catcher Darren Daulton underwent surgery earlier this month for the removal of two glioblastomas. Four others who also played for the Phillies in the 1970s — Tug McGraw, John Vukovich, Johnny Oates and Ken Brett — have succumbed to brain cancer.
Hall of Famer Gary Carter died less than a year after doctors found a glioblastoma that could not be removed.
Despite surgery and aggressive treatment that followed, Jeanine Duncan died just 22 months after she was diagnosed.
Jeanine Duncan’s tumor was largely Stage 4, which made it more likely to grow back after surgery. Duncan says just 5 percent of his glioblastoma was Stage 4. Further encouraging was that his doctor, Allan Friedman, was able to remove virtually all the tumor during a six-plus-hour surgery, leaving only microscopic tentacles that had infiltrated brain matter.
Duncan was back on the air in a limited role less than three weeks after surgery. Three months later, he had resumed his full-time responsibilities. He hasn’t missed his turns as a pregame and postgame analyst on FOX Sports Midwest’s telecasts of Cardinals games, either. He even told the network recently he could handle more appearances.
Duncan works out a few times a week and spends many more hours prepping for his radio show than the three hours he is on the airwaves. He says he “casually” watches every Cardinals night game, then studies the replays every morning. He refuses to allow his affliction to run his life, but he understands what he is fighting.
He has lost more than 25 pounds since surgery. He takes seizure medicine every day. He goes for an MRI every six weeks to check for regrowth. Doctors have told him he will have to do chemotherapy five days every month for the rest of his life.
“I’m a younger person. I’m in good shape. I have a positive attitude. That’s how I think,” says Duncan, 32. “But this is s*****. It’s not something you want to have.”
No one can know how it feels to confront an incurable disease unless he, she or a loved one has done so. You can say it’s indescribably difficult or tragic, but you really don’t know.
But you can be certain of this:
No one could handle such an adversity with a more positive approach and stronger outlook than Chris Duncan.
From the day the tumor was discovered last Sept. 30, he has maintained, “I’m going to kick its ass.” When he informed his bosses at 101 the day of his diagnosis, he actually told them he was sorry.
“Apologizing for having a brain tumor, can you imagine,” Karraker says. “After his surgery, I would text him every day. This was during the Cardinals’ playoff run and even though he was out of it, he always had a quip. He always had a bright attitude about what he was going through.”
Much of this courage comes from family, not only in their support, but also in their approach to life. As Papa Dunc told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last November, “During the course of your life there are things that happen that are really good and positive. 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.”
Chris Duncan deals by doing what he does best these days, talking about sports. He works on his health and dedicates himself to his job. His attitude is nothing less than remarkable when you consider the hardships his family and he have endured in the past two years.
“And being on the radio, too, has to be incredibly stressful,” Karraker says. “He does a great job of compartmentalizing what he’s dealing with in his personal life and illness and what he does on the radio.”
Ask Duncan how the fight is going and you can almost see the determination rising.
“I have it written right in front of me. I’m confident. I’m strong. I’m positive. I’m one with God. I’m healthy. I don’t believe in defeat. I’m unstoppable. I can do anything I put my mind to. I can’t be stopped,” he says.
Without wavering, he adds, “But I do know the realities of what this can do to you because I just watched my mom die in 22 months. They’ve never cured this.”
Now that you know more about Chris Duncan and his cancer, do him a favor and act like you don’t. “It’s hard for me to talk about,” he admits.
But he wouldn’t mind if you wish him the best and keep him in your thoughts.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.