At first, Craig Butler didn’t want to talk about his mom’s battle with cancer.
The diagnosis came in early July, just after the Hamilton Tiger-Cats returned from their season-opening road trip. Dianne, just 61, was just settling into retirement after a long career as a critical care nurse when doctors found cancer in her kidney. It had also spread to the bones in her hip.
For Butler, an all-star safety in his second season with the Ticats, the news was devastating. A mother of three kids, Dianne — or “Mama Dukes” — was at the epicentre of a tight-knit family that was well-known in the London sports scene.
“She was the mom that was at every single football, rain or shine, always tailgating, always having fun,” Butler said. “There first question any of my friends asks when come to Ticat games is, ‘Where’s Mama Dukes?’ She’s always the life of the party.”
For weeks, he kept the news largely to himself, confiding in just a few friends, teammates and coaches. He passed on an opportunity to tell his story in October, when players around the CFL wear pink to raise awareness for women’s cancers.
Ticat centre Mike Filer, who whose mom has battled leukemia, says he understands the instinct to be insular.
“When Craig first told me, I just said that I’d be there if there was anything he needed,” said Filer. “I know from experience that you don’t always want to hear from a lot of people in that situation. We ended up talking about it a bit.”
Filer and Butler had become friends last winter when the two were frequent visitors to McMaster Children’s Hospital, spending time with kids dealing with a range of challenges, including cancer. The pair has also sent personalized video messages to season-ticket holders fighting the disease.
And it was the impact of those efforts that ultimately convinced Butler to share his struggle.
“I was hesitant to talk about this because it’s so personal and I didn’t want to talk about my family,” Butler said. “But if talking about this helps one person who is going through the tough times that I was going through, then it’s worth it.”
The hardest part initially, he says, was dealing with so many unknowns.
“The thing with cancer that I’ve learned is that there are so many questions that you want to have answers to and the doctors can give you a rough idea, but they can’t give you a definitive answer,” Butler said. “But the most difficult thing? How quickly and drastically things change.”
Slowly, he learned how to balance football and supporting his family, realizing that the two things weren’t mutually exclusive. Dianne wanted him to see him succeed — she’s missed just one home date this season — and the game gave him something else to think about, at least for a while.
“I’ve broken down in front of her but she’s never cried in front of me. If she can be that strong for me, then I can be that strong for her,” Butler said. “As much as she’s fighting it, she’s giving the rest of us strength to fight on, too.”
Butler has also continued with his community work, returning to Mac in October dressed as Tarzan. Filer said while it would be easy to let these extra obligations slide, they actually take on a greater importance.
“It becomes more personal and I think both Craig and I have an emotional attachment to what we do,” Filer said. “Our own experience gives the work we do just that much more meaning.”
Dianne is in the midst of both radiation and chemotherapy and in the next few months will have another diagnostic procedure to check on her progress. She’s made some concessions — she didn’t wash a single dish on Thanksgiving — but football isn’t one of them. She’ll be at the game this Sunday as the Ticats host the Argos in the East Division Semifinal.
Her son is doing better, too.
“Now I have a different outlook. A positive mindset is the most powerful tool that you have. I cherish all things I have, even the little ones,” he said. “I’m the last guy that wants any spotlight on me. This is about my mom and it’s about helping other people.”