Berkley Grimm’s experience with cancer began like so many others have.
He felt a lump.
Conditioned as the son of a clinical nurse to check his body for signs for potential danger, he found it in January on his right testicle after a shower.
He waited for about week to see if it would disappear. It didn’t, so he contacted his mother.
That was the first step in a fight against a disease that each year kills about 7.6 million people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Grimm is winning his fight in spectacular fashion. In barely 10 months, the former Regina multi-sport star has gone from having his right testicle and all the lymph nodes on the right side of his stomach removed to resuming his role as a reserve fullback for the Iowa football team, which plays at fourth-ranked Ohio State on Saturday.
“I always want to win,” Grimm said. “I always want to beat whatever I go up against.”
Once he overcame the initial shock of the diagnosis, Grimm has treated the disease like any other opponent. He tries to whip it each day with the same energy, courage and passion that has carried him as an athlete.
And just like with sports, he isn’t alone in this competition.
Grimm’s mother, Shiela Grimm, has been like a guardian angel for her son. Her persistence in reminding Berkley to check for lumps on his body may have saved his life.
“I honestly don’t think I would have checked if it wasn’t for my mom,” Berkley said. “There were really no other symptoms for it, no obvious ones anyway. And mine was in the earlier stages, so there were especially no symptoms.”
Shiela Grimm’s job as a nurse helped give them a better understanding of what to do.
The morning after Berkley told Shiela about the lump, she arranged for him to have an ultrasound at Mercy Hospital. Berkley was told Jan. 15 that he had testicular cancer, which is rare, only accounting for about 1 percent of all male cancers, according to the Testicular Cancer Society. However, testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer in men ages 15 to 35.
Every year in the United States, an estimated 8,500 men are diagnosed with testicular cancer and 350 of them die from the disease, according to the Testicular Cancer Society.
“It was pretty unreal,” Berkley Grimm said of his diagnosis. “There was no fear. I didn’t really know what to think at the time. I kind of just accepted it.
“My mom was in the room. She was really upset. I kind of just sat there and thought, ‘What’s the next step going to be?’”
Shiela Grimm was shocked, but her shock quickly gave way to her instincts as a mother and a nurse.
“As a mom and just being a worrywart in our profession and we worry as parents, I was just in tears because I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Shiela said. “Testicular cancer spreads quite quickly and easily through the lymph nodes. So we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t in his bloodstream and it wasn’t in his chest.”
Berkley had his blood tested and an X-ray taken of his chest that same day to see if the cancer had spread. Fortunately, it hadn’t.
Shiela knew time was precious, though, so she arranged for Berkley to have surgery Jan. 18, just three days after the diagnosis was made.
“I wanted him in as soon as possible to get it out,” Shiela said of the cancerous tumor. “I wanted it out of him.”
The surgery to remove Berkley’s testicle took about an hour and Shiela felt upbeat afterward, thinking perhaps the worst was over.
But Berkley’s fight was just getting started.
He had three options for his next step in the recovery process, Shiela said. One option would have been what Shiela described as surveillance, in which Berkley’s blood would have been tested every month, along with having chest X-rays and a CAT scan. A second option would have been chemotherapy, while the third option was to have all the lymph nodes removed from the right side of his abdomen.
After consulting with medical experts, Shiela was convinced that removing the lymph nodes would be the best course of action. She figured the surgery would take place in Iowa City, given all the medical facilities, but they were advised to seek treatment from a doctor in Indianapolis who specialized in this type of procedure.
She contacted Richard Foster’s office on Jan. 28 and scheduled an appointment for two days later.
“So at 5 a.m., I took off with Berkley to Indiana,” Shiela said.
The surgery lasted about two hours and was successful: Berkley’s lymph nodes showed no traces of cancer.
But it took more than 40 staples to close the incision on Berkley’s stomach, which stretched from his sternum to his pelvis.
Pain killers helped him get through the first few hours after the surgery, but they eventually wore off, making the day after surgery one of the worst in Berkley’s life.
He was no stranger to pain, either, after having had, Shiela said, a dozen surgeries for sports-related injuries.
“When I came out of surgery, I was in a daze, obviously,” Berkley said. “It really wasn’t that painful that first day. I was just really stiff. I couldn’t move at all.
“And then the next day it hurt. It was the worst pain I’ve felt in my entire life.”
The pain eventually subsided, but Berkley faced new struggles. The spring semester had just started at the University of Iowa and he remained in school partly because he wanted to stay on the Iowa football team.
Berkley became bored and was frustrated that he couldn’t participate in spring practice, which lasted from late March to mid-April. Just getting to his classes was challenge.
“After my surgery, I couldn’t really do anything for two months,” Berkley said. “I could hardly walk. I couldn’t carry anything more than 10 pounds. I had my good and bad days when I was just sitting at home. I couldn’t do anything. I just got tired it. I don’t do well with nothing to do. I’ve got to be doing something.
“And the fact that I couldn’t do anything was just so frustrating. It did depress me. I was so used to lifting and just being active. And I could not do anything like that. That was a really frustrating part, just standing around at (spring) practice all day after I did my 40-minute bike workout and watch everybody else play football.”
Berkley spent most of his time in spring practice riding an exercise bike. He started jogging near the end of spring practice, and by the start of summer workouts, he was almost back to normal.
He trained with his Iowa teammates over the summer and was eager to contribute this fall after being redshirted last season following his transfer from FCS power North Dakota State.
His opportunity was derailed, though, after he learned that he was one credit short from being eligible to compete. He had fallen behind with his academics during the spring semester while recovering from surgery.
Berkley appealed to the NCAA for a waiver, which was granted almost immediately after officials learned about his situation.
Berkley has been eligible to compete for about three weeks. He now weighs about 230 pounds and was named the scout team offensive player of the week for the games against Minnesota and Michigan State.
Berkley respects his fellow Iowa fullbacks and admires what starter Adam Cox and backup Macon Plewa have contributed to the team. But Berkley wants what they have in terms of playing time and is determined to get it.
“They’re doing a good job, and it makes you want to get out there,” Berkley said. “I feel as though I would’ve been out there if none of this would have happened. But there is nothing you can do about that except continue to work hard.”
Cox said he wasn’t sure what to think when told that Berkley would be absent from the offseason workouts this past winter. Berkley broke the news to him days before his surgery.
“He told me he had cancer and that he was going to be gone getting surgery,” Cox said. “I just tried to text him every once in a while to make sure he was doing all right. And when he got back, we knew it was going to be tough for him because, obviously, he wasn’t able to do anything for so long.
“We just tried to help him along the way and push him through and keep him motivated and keep his nose to the grindstone.”
Berkley understands that his fight isn’t over. It’s still too early to say that his cancer is in remission with the diagnosis coming less than a year ago.
Berkley still has his blood tested every other month, along with an X-ray taken of his chest, to make sure the cancer hasn’t spread.
But Berkley said he isn’t consumed by fear because there isn’t time for that as a 20-year-old college student who plays football at a Big Ten school.
“I live my life,” said Berkley, who wants to teach elementary school and get into coaching after he graduates from college. “I don’t want to live my life thinking every day I might have cancer. I don’t live in the fear of getting it back. I’m just living as much as I can right now.”
Berkley’s recovery has been helped by an outpouring of affection. He received more than 200 get-well cards from students at three local elementary schools shortly after his surgery. His former coaches and classmates at Regina, where Berkley competed in football, soccer and wrestling after transferring from West High as a junior also reached out to him and his family.
“It’s a smaller sample size with everything we’re doing and everybody knows everybody and we’re all part of the same thing to some extent,” said Marv Cook, Regina football coach and former Iowa all-America tight end. “So when you meet somebody like Berkley and you’ve got a guy that has done everything to be great and is willing to work hard at it, then you get vested with them.”
Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle brought Berkley energy drinks when he was bedridden shortly after the surgery.
“I didn’t realize that many people would reach out to me and support me,” Berkley said. “But they did. I’m not saying I didn’t know they were good people. But I didn’t know that I meant that much to them. It was good to know.”
The ordeal also reminded Berkley what he means to his family, which in addition to Shiela includes 22-year-old sister Keeley, 13-year-old sister Lainey, his father Kevin Grimm, his grandparents Jim and Rhonda Halvorsen, and biological father Burke Strand.
Berkley had special praise for his grandmother for helping him get through the darker days.
“She was always there for me,” he said.
Shiela gets emotional when talking about Berkley’s supporters. She cherishes the cards made by the students and she’ll always have a special place in her heart for former Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer, who now plays for the Indianapolis Colts.
Shortly after Berkley returned from surgery in Indianapolis, he received a package on back-to-back days. Inside were books and DVDs that told stories about survival and fighting for what you believe.
Both packages were sent by Angerer, who grew up in Bettendorf and played at Iowa from 2006-09.
“The thing about that that was so amazing is that Pat could’ve easily just said I’m going to get him some Colts stuff,” Shiela said. “That’s easy. Pat Angerer actually took the time to go on the (Internet) and pick out books and DVDs for Berkley.”
Angerer knew Berkley from working with Regina’s strength and conditioning program one summer during college.
“That just shows who Pat Angerer is,” Shiela said. “He actually cares about people. I don’t know him personally. But he knew Berkley went to Iowa. And he knows Berkley from Regina. And that just shows a lot about the Iowa Hawkeyes.”
Berkley was a Bison before he became a Hawkeye.
He played his freshman season for perennial FCS power North Dakota State in 2011, appearing in all 15 games at fullback and on special teams. The Bison finished 14-1 that season and won their first FSC national championship.
But his success on the field wasn’t enough for Berkley to overcome the homesickness he felt while living in Fargo, N.D. He missed his family, and he missed life in Iowa City.
He also wanted to play at the highest level. So he transferred to Iowa last fall as a preferred walk-on and was redshirted last season.
Shiela at first tried to talk Berkley out of transferring, but now she’s relieved that he did. She and her husband feel fortunate that Berkley was attending Iowa when the diagnosis was made.
“That’s what my husband and I say, there is a reason and a greater power up there, whatever you believe in, that brought him back here,” Shiela said. “Because had this happened when he was in Fargo, he might not have told me.
“So there were reasons why he came back here. We just didn’t know it at the time.”
Being diagnosed with cancer has changed Berkley in some ways. He has more appreciation for life but also less tolerance for whining.
“Everything is easier,” Berkley said. “Like when we’re conditioning really hard, I just think back to the pain I was in back then because that was something unimaginable. It kind of puts football in perspective a little bit. It makes everything easier.
“But it’s kind of bad, too, because I don’t really feel sympathy for anybody else anymore. I feel bad for them. But when they whine about it, that’s what I don’t like.”
Berkley always has been one of his toughest critics. He demands a lot from himself and won’t let being diagnosed with cancer change that.
“Sometimes, I forget and I’m hard on myself about a lot of stuff because I’m a competitor,” Berkley said. “Sometimes I forget that I did beat cancer and I did do all that stuff and I’m here right now. I’m stronger than I was before I had cancer, physically and mentally.”
Berkley and his mother hope that others will follow their advice and check for warning signs.
“Check for stuff like that because it can happen to anybody,” Berkley said.
Reach Pat Harty at 319-339-7370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football