EDITOR’S NOTE (May 3, 2018): Keven Drews has died after a lengthy battle with cancer.
KEVEN DREWS ANSWERED the phone a little out of breath.
“Hey Keven, it’s Beau,” I say, trying to sound cheerful in light of the heavy interview that was about to go down. “How are you feeling today?”
“Ugh,” he grunts. “Good enough to muck around.”
Keven was expecting my call.
I hear music playing in the background and if you didn’t know any better, you would get the impression that he was pulled away from mundane household chores, like doing laundry or sweeping out the garage.
Keven was indeed “tidying things up” around his Rosemary Heights home on this dreary Thursday morning.
But the kind of tidying up he was doing was anything but mundane.
The 45-year-old former journalist was rounding up all his photos – thousands of them – putting them all in one place so his wife and children will have them when he is gone.
“So I’m busy, but not the kind of busy I want to be,” he says, slowly starting to catch his breath.
“Essentially, I’m wrapping my life up.”
That is the Keven Drews I know, I think to myself – always doing things to the best of his ability.
Even when preparing to die.
– – –
IF IT WEREN’T for journalism – and maybe music – Keven Drews and I would likely never have been friends.
In the early 2000s, we were just coming from different places. But we worked together at the now defunct Nanaimo Daily News and we bonded over the many shared experiences and challenges that came with working the night desk. Plus, having a gruff, no-nonsense editor straight out of the whiskey-in-your-desk ’60s also gave us plenty to vent about.
Keven Drews and his wife Yvette. (Photo submitted)
Music also connected us. Keven knew tons about music, and I was a budding guitar player. In fact, our friendship was cemented when Keven’s talented wife Yvette – now a Surrey school teacher – joined me at the front of a small martini bar in Nanaimo for a three-song acoustic set.
It was my first time playing guitar in public and I remember Keven pushing us to be the best we could be as we rehearsed those three songs again and again.
Anything worth doing is worth doing right. That was the Keven I knew in Nanaimo – it was his mantra about journalism, music, relationships, and life in general.
Later that year, his life changed forever – and I was with him when it happened.
We were surfing on Long Beach in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, when Keven suddenly screamed out in pain, clutching at his chest and ribs.
“It was like being stabbed in the back with a blunt knife,” he said later.
He went to the emergency room but doctors simply thought it was a slipped disc or he had done something to his back out in the surf.
An MRI in 2003 revealed the unthinkable. He had multiple myeloma – cancer of the plasma cells.
– – –
The word shocked him.
“It really felt like I was disassociated from my body,” Keven says. “I felt like I was not there, like it was a movie. Just a complete loss of control over yourself. I don’t mean crying, you just get this sense, what just happened? This force has come into my life and I was just numb.”
And multiple myeloma?
That type of cancer typically attacks people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Regardless, what the disease had in store for Keven was excruciating pain – 14 years of it.
It’s a disease that starts in the marrow and essentially “breaks and buckles bone from the inside,” as he puts it (at one point, his vertebrae actually came apart).
While it’s not clear what causes multiple myeloma, doctors do know that it begins with one abnormal plasma cell in your bone marrow — the soft, blood-producing tissue that fills in the centre of most of your bones. The abnormal cell multiplies uncontrollably and make more abnormal plasma cells, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. This makes it hard for other blood cells in the bone marrow to develop and work normally.
Since being diagnosed, Keven has undergone a stem cell transplant as well as multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. After multiple relapses, Keven and his family started raising money near the end of 2017 to send him to a clinical trial based in Seattle.
The trial develops what’s called “CAR T” cell therapy. Medical staff would remove from his body and then re-engineer in a lab T cells, the immune system’s killer cells, before infusing them back into his blood stream to attack the cancer.
It was his last chance.
“This is it,” he told Now-Leader reporter Amy Reid in early November. “If I don’t do it, I die.”
But it wasn’t a sure thing. He would have to be accepted – and come up with about $675,000.
No problem. After all, this is Keven Drews we’re talking about, a guy who is using his cancer to teach his two kids a lesson in resilience, about what it means to fight for your life.
“How fast can I raise this?” he said in November. “We just thought we can’t sit around because of how quickly things move. You gotta fight.”
A GoFundMe page was set up and the money started coming in. A Facebook page, YouTube channel and Twitter account were launched. A fundraiser on Vancouver Island was organized.
As the funds started building, so did his family’s hope.
But another storm cloud – perhaps the final one – was on the horizon.
– – –
“NO CLINICAL TRIAL,” read the ominous header on one of Keven’s Facebook posts in early January.
“I don’t like to lose,” he wrote, “and I’m losing my battle against multiple myeloma—in a big way. My team of Vancouver-based doctors informed me last week I would not be participating in the clinical trial I had pinned my hopes of survival on.”
In a heart-breaking turn of events, Keven’s out-of-whack calcium and creatinine levels were enough to disqualify him.
“That means there is nothing left, except for some minor medications, to hold the cancer back, and I am running out of time.”
Looking back, his voice brims with pride over the phone as he recounts all he has achieved, despite everything life has thrown at him.
“In 2003, it was death or a transplant, those were the options,” he says. “And in those 14 years, I have accomplished a lot. I have no regrets… I didn’t waste any time. I had a business going, I did my Masters in creative writing, I had two kids, a wonderful wife.
“There is a lot more I want to accomplish but it’s not gonna happen,” he adds, his voice lowering.
“I don’t have the time.”
– – –
KEVEN DREWS has always loved writing – and he’s done a lot of it.
After attending school in Surrey, he graduated from UBC and earned a post-degree certificate in journalism from Langara College.
Over his career, he has worked at newspapers in B.C. and Washington state. Most recently, he worked with Canadian Press.
He even completed an MFA in creative non-fiction at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. while undergoing chemo.
These days, he has been putting the finishing touches on his latest personal essay he titled, “Fourteen Years of Pain.”
He also reads. A lot.
But there’s a problem.
“I keep ordering books, Beau,” he says. “I ordered three books yesterday and I’m wondering if I’m going to get the time to read them.”
That’s why every day Keven spends with his wife and two children is immeasurable.
“Your family is the most important thing in the world,” he says. “My family is here for me right now. And they will be there for me when I meet the end.”
By now, you may be wondering – as I was – how does Keven keep it all together? After all, Keven has seen people in his situation simply give up and die when their will was gone.
What is it that gives him such strength?
“I seem to have this internal drive that you have probably seen in my life, going back to Nanaimo, that just pushes me continually forward,” he says.
“I just cannot get away from that. It’s this weird feeling, that I want to experience more, and I’m not talking about money.
“I seem to have this drive that makes me want to gain more experiences in life.”
|The Drews family: Keven, Tristan, Yvette and Elleree. (Photo submitted)|
He also watches movies – comedies, of course.
“You have to,” he says. “This is as much a psychological battle as it is a physical battle.”
Finally, Keven shares some advice for people whose lives are being rocked by cancer.
“You can’t quit,” he says. “Don’t waste any seconds. Just because you get that diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re dead.”
We end our interview by making plans for coffee – it turns out their new place is just up the road from the Now-Leader office.
But we had better do it quickly, he adds in an ominous tone.
I start saying my goodbyes with a heavy soul.
But somehow, I also feel uplifted. Maybe it is because Keven reminded me of the importance of family – and just how minute some of our day-to-day problems really are in the grand scheme of things.
I also feel inspired, knowing that his story is sure to encourage thousands of people, whether they’ve just begun their battle with cancer or are near their journey’s end.
Before I hang up, I thank Keven for his honesty and tell him I admire his strength of character.
“It’s a scary thing,” he says. “You can quit or you can go on. And I didn’t quit.”
“And you’re going on,” I say as I reach for the big red ‘stop’ button on my voice recorder.
“Yeah,” he replies.
“Well, as far as I can, right?”