Breaking the Ice
Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser opens up about living with an incurable cancer that he refuses to let sideline him.
BY Jessica Skarzynski and Katie Kosko
PUBLISHED November 11, 2019
During his 30 years as a referee, Kerry Fraser skated among NHL greats, observing the action and enforcing rules. But, he admits, he wasn’t listening to the signs his own body was giving him regarding his health. After he retired, Fraser found himself fighting an incurable blood cancer revealed during routine bloodwork.
He is living with essential thrombocythemia, a type of myeloproliferative neoplasm that causes the body to overproduce blood platelets. Fraser’s week now consists of nine chemotherapy pills, one daily and two on Mondays and Fridays, but says he was handed “the light pail” of cancer diagnoses. In an interview with Heal ®, he discussed his diagnosis, his new normal and his biggest reason to live: his family.
Heal ®: What led to your diagnosis?
Fraser: It was an accident that (the cancer) was able to even be diagnosed. I had a fatty cell in my bicep — I looked like Popeye — (so) during my NHL career, I would see various doctors. I saw the New Jersey Devils doctor when it first started to get large, and he said, “No, it’s just a fatty cell. Get your cholesterol checked.” I have hereditary high cholesterol levels.
But after I retired, this thing started to get bigger, and it felt like it was impinging on my bicep, and so I wanted to get it out. (I had) preop blood work. My general practitioner called me, and he said, “We’ve got a problem here.” He said that he had to get me to a hematologist. My platelet count was over the top. I didn’t know it, (but) it could have resulted in a heart attack or a stroke through a blood clot.
My wife booked me into a cancer clinic, Fox Chase (Cancer Center). I saw a hematologist there. After blood tests and other things, he brought my wife in for the next consultation and said, “Well, we know what you have. It’s a cancer, and it’s in the leukemia family.” My wife fell apart. As the husband, the protector — all of the jock — the hockey guy, I wanted to manage my wife’s pain level in this. So I took a breath and I said, “OK, doctor. How do we manage this? What do we do?” So he gave me some insight as to length of life span. ... He said that (I) have the JAK2 mutant gene in (my) bone marrow and it’s causing the platelet count to flood. But he said there are ways we can control it. I said, “OK. I want you to be the captain of my team.”
From that point, we had to go tell family. I had to bring my wife’s temperature down. I wanted them to know that Dad and Papa is going to be OK and that this is just a little thing we have to work through. So I told all of our kids and grandkids. Then Kathy and I went away, just to get away. We went to Aruba, our favorite little island. The first day in Aruba, it finally hit me, and I had a down day and I started to feel depressed. Again, the hockey mentality kicked in, and I said to myself, “Wake up. Let’s get this under control. Let’s do some work.”
I went down to the health club. I rode the bike for 12 or 15 miles. I felt like a million bucks and had a whole different attitude. There (are) ups and downs, but I’ll tell you, you can manage this, and you have to manage your emotions, which I learned on the ice.
What type of support did you receive?
(I got it from) the community, and the support you get is crucial. I got a call from Bobby Orr, No. 4 of the Boston Bruins, a Hall of Fame legend. He’s arguably one of the best to ever play the game, certainly at the defense position, without question. I got calls from all over. Mark Messier phoned me, the captain of the New York Rangers who won The Cup. The Moose said to me, “Hey, listen, Fras, keep fighting.” Mark Messier was a fighter, and he gave me that sort of advice. When you have a support system and network and family — I look at my grandchildren, my kids — it spurs me on every day. I want to be here as long as I can. So far, we’re doing great.
How did you get used to your new normal during treatment and beyond?
It’s been two years since (my cancer) was diagnosed, and you work at it. For me, one of the side effects was fatigue, and I’m a go-go-go (person). I’m an Energizer Bunny kind of guy, but I found with this, at some point in a month or in a week, I’d hit the wall and I’d have to go down. I just couldn’t fight it off. And when I needed a rest, I rested. It could have been 12 to 14 hours. But it recharged the batteries, and then away I’d go again. I found that exercise really helps. It helps me mentally and physically. It helps me recharge the batteries and no differently (from) when I refereed. If I flew out to Los Angeles and I was going to be on a 10-day trip and I was tired ... My wife and I have seven children, so consequently, I was usually tired when I left home, but rather than go to bed, the first thing I did out there was put on my gym gear, and I’d go down and ride the bike.
How are you using your platform with the NHL to help raise awareness of your disease?
When I was in Aruba after (receiving my diagnosis), I wanted to get the message out, and I wrote an article that was posted on NHL.com. I wanted people to first of all understand that it was through a random blood test that (the cancer) was diagnosed. I wanted them to understand how important it is, at least annually, to have some blood- work done and pay attention to the signs. The other part was, I didn’t want there to be false information. There is so much misinformation out there through social media: “Oh, Fraser is dying.” It’s important to get the right message out there and provide hope and support.
You are living with an incurable disease. Aside from health aspects, has that changed you or your outlook on the stressors of daily life?
I’m Type A. It caused me to be successful to a large degree in the career that I had in the NHL. But I learned to manage stress during that 30-year career, and maybe it prepared me a little bit for the diagnosis. I want to be around at this stage of my life for my family — my wife, children and 11 grandchildren. We are very involved in their lives. We live close by. I coach some of them in hockey. I’m the fun papa that they like to play sports with and joke with. I’m big-time motivated ... I would never want to give up to anything that would prevent me from spending at least one more day, one more year or years with the family that I adore.
What message do you want to share with people who are living with a myeloproliferative neoplasm?
Everybody is different in how they respond to a challenge. There are people who prefer to be private and quiet. I don’t think that’s the right way to approach this. I would like to see people, even if you’re fearful, (speak up). There is help out there. Help is available to pull you up when you are down and you have the opportunity to pull others up when they’re down. I don’t think it’s best to stay in the chair. Get out there. Stay in front of this thing.