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Brian Custer’s greatest stand

Showtime Boxing analyst Brian Custer at work. Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime
06
Apr

 

Each ominous word struck Brian Custer like a tiny dagger, as he sat there numb in his car: “I…think…it’s…probably…best…that…you… come…to…my…office,” he heard from the other end of the phone. Custer had just pulled up to SportsNet New York (SNY) on 51st and Sixth Street in midtown Manhattan to do a broadcast, on a bustling mid-week afternoon, when his world stopped.

Suddenly everything lost shape. Sound was gone. The honking taxis were silent. The looming shadows of the street’s skyscrapers dissipated as Custer was locked into a surreal spell. Impervious, he saw his life unreeling. Ten minutes felt like three days, by the time he reached for a tissue, dabbed his eyes, then got out of the car and walked the six blocks to his doctor’s office, stepping through a sea of people without feeling the pavement under his feet nor the throng brushing by.

How he arrived at his doctor’s, he still doesn’t remember. The receptionist looked up this time, instead of the usual cold greeting of “Sign your name; take a seat,” without even bothering to lift her head. This time, she looked Custer in the eyes as she picked up the phone and acknowledged him. “Brian Custer is here,” she said. Then to Custer, “The doctor is in his office waiting for you.”



The “Showtime Championship Boxing” studio host walked in, was asked to take a seat to hear news he sort of expected. “Listen, there’s never any easy way to tell you this: Brian, you have cancer,” Dr. David Kaufman told him. “It’s aggressive. It’s not f**cking around. We have to get you into surgery immediately.”

You could have hit Custer with a sledgehammer and he wouldn’t have felt it. The only thing he remembers afterward was seeing a bird on a tree branch through the doctor’s window, before Dr. Kaufman grabbed his hand to snap him back into reality. Custer knew the news – he heard the news – and he didn’t want to believe it.

That Wednesday, July 17, 2013, Custer learned he had prostate cancer. Epiphanies come packaged in different ways and in different places. Custer’s came lying in a Manhattan Lenox Hill Hospital bed after he underwent successful surgery to remove his prostate on August 15, 2013.

“I’ll tell you this: Boxing saved my life,” Custer said. “The year I went through the prostate cancer, I was working for SNY and my contract was exclusive and up at the end of 2013. I was lying in my hospital bed, literally right after surgery, thinking I wasn’t going to re-sign with SNY and make the move to Showtime. I thought to myself, ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going to die doing something that I’m passionate about and for something that I love.’

“I love the sport and I decided then that I was going to die broadcasting boxing. I was going to sign with Showtime and it’s the best decision I ever made. I have a message and I want to be heard. I’m going to continue to fight this thing. I’m never going to stop.”

Little did Custer know his fight would continue – and still does today. The scare was revisited last winter. On March 28, 2018, Custer underwent the last of radical radiation treatments to remove any remnants that could be potentially cancerous. Custer is not completely cancer-free. He needs to get checked three months from now to find out. After 39 radiation treatments, there is an 80-85% chance he will be cancer-free for the rest of his life.

Custer doesn’t think of himself as courageous. Everyone around him differs. He doesn’t see braving radiation and continuing to perform in a demanding job in front of millions, without even a hint that he was staring down a beast like prostate cancer, as unique. No one in his inner circle agrees with him there either. What is universally acknowledged is that Custer, 47, and in his fifth year as Showtime’s magnetic studio host, is a changed man.

He has started working with the Prostate Cancer Foundation to bring greater awareness of the disease. He wants to use his considerable platform to urge others to “know your numbers,” in reference to the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, which gauges normal and malignant cells in the prostate gland. Custer also wants to break the stigma that goes along with prostate cancer, deemed the “silent killer,” especially among African-American men.

“I want to tell guys that it’s OK to get your prostate checked and, as men in general, we don’t go to the doctors enough,” said Custer, a Columbus, Ohio native and Hampton University graduate. “Just imagine if I didn’t get a check-up five years ago, I would be dead right now. It’s a disease aimed at our manhood. Guys don’t want to talk to anyone about some problems they may have. I tell them all the time, ‘Do you want to live or do you want to worry about how you perform sexually?’ To me, it’s an easy decision. They call prostate cancer the silent killer for a reason because you will not have any symptoms at all until it’s too late.

“It’s what happened to me. I certainly don’t take life for granted anymore and I really enjoy people, more so than I used to. There are days when I can be outside standing in my pool and just look up at the sky and feel really good. I look at things, some of the most minor things, like I’ve never looked at them before. Stuff you never noticed before, you notice.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Prostate cancer is cancer that occurs in the prostate – a small walnut-shaped gland in men that produces the seminal fluid that nourishes and transports sperm. Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in men. Usually prostate cancer grows slowly and is initially confined to the prostate gland, where it may not cause serious harm. However while some types of prostate cancer grow slowly and may need minimal or even no treatment, other types are aggressive and can spread quickly. Prostate cancer that’s detected early – when it’s still confined to the prostate gland – has a better chance of successful treatment.”

More significantly, Custer wants to place an emphasis on this, by the American Cancer Society: “African American men have, by far, the highest incidence of the disease: They are roughly 1.6 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than whites and 2.6 times more likely than Asian Americans. The gap in mortality rates is even more dramatic – African Americans are more than twice as likely to die of prostate cancer as whites and about five times more likely to die of it than Asian Americans.”

Many of the reasons deal with diet, obesity and the genetic variant AGGGCAGGAG, according to research done by the University of Pennsylvania.

 

How and where it started…

In 2011, Custer had turned 40 and felt in the best shape of his life. He’s very active. He plays basketball, is a second-degree black belt in martial arts and Taekwondo and felt nothing was wrong. There was no discomfort, no unusual growths anywhere. SNY, where he was working at the time, sent out a health fair voucher, which included a free physical, and it specified for those persons of color, African-American and Latin that were 40 or older, a prostate exam was suggested.

“I had no idea what a prostate check-up was about, and it was an uncomfortable thing,” Custer said. “I went and tried the PSA test. The doctor asked me to pull my pants down. I was like, ‘What!’ I went through with the test anyway and they told me that if my PSA number was 4 or higher, we needed to talk. If it was under, we were good.”

His first result was a reassuring 2.4. The next year, Custer eschewed the prostate exam but at 43, in June 2013, Custer gave in and that’s when Dr. Kaufman told him he felt a bump on his prostate gland. At the time, Custer was told it could be something or it could be a benign calcium deposit.

The results came back and the PSA number was 5.4.

“Dr. Kaufman told me the younger you are, the more aggressive the cancer could be,” Custer recalled. “But I dismissed it because, in my mind, I would justify it by saying to myself, ‘It can’t be that bad; it’s one over 4.’ I put the results in my book bag and didn’t want to think about it.”

Two days later, a producer was asking Custer for some information he kept in his book bag and that’s when the results spilled out on his desk. Maybe it was happenstance; maybe it was divine intervention. Whatever it was, Custer paid attention.

“I sat there for a minute and thought about ignoring it,” Custer remembered. “I wound up calling the doc, got his voicemail, left a message and told him I had a 5.4 and I said to him I don’t know if that means anything or not. I hang up and the doc called back and left me a voicemail that the 5.4 means a lot and he had to see me again to talk about it.”

A week later, another test was taken and the bump was still there. A biopsy was ordered, which was another arduous, uneasy test, though the doctor stressed to Custer not to say anything to anyone because it would scare his family. In early July, Custer underwent the biopsy.

That’s what led to the doctor’s life-altering phone call on Wednesday, July 17, in front of the SNY building.

“I tried calling my wife, my mother and father and I remember I couldn’t get anyone on the phone,” Custer said. “The first one I wound up reaching was my father, who said we were going to get through this and everything was going to be fine.

“I called my wife Carmen and we got together to tell my sons, who are 14, 13 and 8 now. Carmen screamed and cried when she heard, which made me get emotional. She was angry at me because I didn’t tell her anything leading to it. I told her I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to scare anyone but we dealt with it.

“I just thought that, after the surgery, I was over it. But cancer is a huge test mentally because, before – I’ll be honest – I used to live my life in three-month intervals. Everything is good for a month, then I had a test coming up and it was hard knowing what that test could mean.

“I was testing well for a while. I was pumping out zeroes on the PSA and then a number started coming up. That’s when the anxiety began to build. When I was going through the treatments, I didn’t want anyone to know. My bosses obviously at Showtime and, by then, FOX Sports knew. My family knew and that was it because I didn’t want anyone to treat me differently.

“I never wanted anyone to feel pity for me or say, ‘Oh my God; look at him.’ People treat you differently when they find out you have, or you’ve had, cancer. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to come to a fighter meeting and someone say, ‘Oh my God; I’m so sorry.’ I didn’t want that. I wanted to be treated like myself. Plus I have my boys. I didn’t want them to be scared. I wanted to be active in front of them. I wanted to show strength in front of them. I didn’t want them, or anyone else around me, to be concerned.”

 

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime

 

Over the last 18 months, Custer’s PSA numbers kept climbing in small increments.

Dr. David Samadi, who performed Custer’s surgery, told him that more measures would need to be taken to wipe out the possibility of the cancer returning when his number hit a 1.5 late last year. Custer needed to update his Showtime family – Sports President Stephen Espinoza, Executive Producer David Dinkins Jr. and Vice President Gordon Hall – with whom Custer works.

“I told them what was going on and it was emotional between us,” Custer said. “You have to understand something: They’re like my older brothers, how they treat me. They said, ‘Whatever we need to do, we will do. If it means flying out on Fridays instead of Thursdays for fights, taking a fight off, we’ll make sure whatever it is you need to do to stay healthy.’ It’s why I say that I’m so fortunate to be with Showtime and how they’ve supported me. Their whole thing with me was, ‘Don’t worry because you’re our guy and we will do whatever you need to make sure that you’re healthy and get the support.”

Custer already had a chaotic schedule. He had to wedge arrangements for five treatments a week for two months, when Custer would be slid into a radiation machine for 10 minutes. He wore plugs in his ears so he wouldn’t have to hear the shrill sound as if it were grinding glass. His treatments began on February 5, until the last one, on Wednesday, March 28, at 6:30 in the morning, just before leaving for England for the Anthony Joshua-Joseph Parker heavyweight title unification bout on March 31.

It wore him out. He had to take pills before the treatments that brought down his hormone level. However he had to stay active and not let the radiation tear down his immune system, on top of amending his FOX Sports schedule, broadcasting college basketball games.

“You keep the principles of Taekwondo and that’s the indomitable spirit,” Custer said. “Everyone has it. If we tap into it, it will pull out the best in you, even though everything around you may be hectic. For me, that’s what I tapped into every time we went on the air. I would feel horrible. It wouldn’t be a good day for me but I wouldn’t – or couldn’t – let my guys down.

“I couldn’t let the fans down. Millions are turning on their TVs because they want to see one helluva fight and they want to be entertained. It is my job to help deliver the entertainment to the best of my ability. That was always my focus.”

 

Custer interviews Floyd Mayweather Jr. Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime

 

It was a tough task. He had his share of “Why me?” days. Custer always radiates a vitality when he’s on the air. He’s the quintessential energy guy. He somehow summoned the strength to mask the bad days – and there were many. Perhaps the nadir came recently in San Antonio, Texas, March 10, in the Freeman Coliseum, for the Mikey Garcia-Sergey Lipinets fight.

That was a challenge. Custer was nauseous and frail. He underwent a treatment on Friday, 6:30 a.m., March 9, and then got a flight to Texas later that day. From there, there were fighter meetings and production meetings, working out the coordination and script of the show, plus rehearsals. Custer, already in a weakened state, felt his insides twisting. He never had a chance to get adequate rest. He wasn’t about to let anyone know though but they knew.

Showtime color analyst Al Bernstein constantly sends texts and emails to Custer, telling him, “You’re on my mind; just checking on you. I hope you’re okay. I’m with you.” As Custer was undergoing his radiation treatments, Showtime analyst Paulie Malignaggi would direct message him, “Hey BC, have you read this on Vitamin D treatments; diets that starve cancer; knowledge is power, luv you. Hey, BC, I read this about pumpkin seeds, have you added this to your diet? I’ll see you soon brother.”

Dinkins would call and text Custer at least two to three times a week. “What’s your story; how are you; I need to know you’re okay; call me.” Hall would encourage him to keep working out and urge him to push limits.

“Brian and I have a very close relationship and if we weren’t very close, I wouldn’t have observed the situation in San Antonio and been able to identify that it might not have been a great day for Brian physically,” Dinkins said. “It didn’t affect the process; it certainly didn’t affect the production.”

The Showtime crew showed patience the day of the Garcia-Lipinets fight. Custer wasn’t on his game. He took a break from the Saturday rehearsal about an hour before the show, using the excuse that he had to fix his tie and check his make-up. Custer asked a Showtime security guard to accompany him to a bathroom. Custer purposely took his time and waited for the guard to leave. Custer then stepped into a stall, hunched over a toilet and vomited. He tried muffling the heaves to eliminate the audible signs that he was sick.

He cleaned up, looked at himself in the mirror and said, “I’m going to do this!”

“Brian is a very courageous guy,” Dinkins said. “Most of us can’t know what it’s like what he went through, unless you’re going through it. But Brian, in no way, has let that affect his performance or his relationship with his colleagues. He soldiered on and did his usual capable job. You could see Brian wasn’t his usual jovial self. He seemed a tad preoccupied but Brian doesn’t want to let anyone down. He didn’t let anybody down. We rallied together and Brian was terrific – as always.”

Custer said that was his lowest point.

“That was it; that was rock bottom for me,” Custer said. “I went back out, sat in my seat. Usually what I do before every show, when David gets in our ear and says, ‘A minute,’ I always take a moment and I’ll look around the entire arena. I’ll close my eyes and say a prayer to thank God. I remember saying, ‘If You are with me, I need You today because I need to be better than ever.’”

Custer was not an animal lover prior to getting cancer. Despite his sons pestering him for a dog, he always refused. On Easter weekend, Custer gave in and brought home a boxer puppy named Zeke.

A few weeks after his surgery, Custer walked out to a glaring August afternoon and realized something.

 

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott/Showtime

 

“I was like, ‘Wow, the sun feels great on me,’” he recalled. “My wife and my middle son ask me today why I’m always staring at them. You want take in everything. Once you face your own mortality, it changes you a lot. You have a totally new perspective on life.

“I’m not shy anymore of telling people who are very special to me that I love them.”

 

 

 

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