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How Rusty Hilger's Football Career Prepared Him For Battle Against Cancer

Updated: Dec 7, 2019

by JENNI CARLSON, Daily Oklahoman | Published: Tue, February 7, 2017 9:00 AM

[The following Article was written prior to starting cancer treatment using Golden Sunrise therapies and prior to visiting MD Anderson Cancer Center]

There is a time, right before he falls asleep each night, when Rusty Hilger feels vulnerable.

In those moments when his body is still, his mind will race. The disbelief creeps in first. Then comes the doubt and the worry and the fear.

"Dude, you've got cancer," he will think, "and it's killing you. "What are you going to do about it?"

The first bits are absolute fact — the former Oklahoma State quarterback has esophageal cancer, and it is a killer — but the answer that he has for the second bit is also fact.

Rusty Hilger is fighting like hell.

That should come as no surprise. That's what he has always done, going from unheralded recruit at Southeast High in Oklahoma City to successful starter at Oklahoma State, then going from late-round draft pick to eight-year NFL player. He made a career out of overcoming the odds.

He intends to do the same with cancer.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I'm not going down without a fight," he said.

But much like his football career, his cancer fight is a bit unconventional.

The battle began unexpectedly on Christmas Day. Hilger and wife, Tera, had family gather at their house in Mustang. There were gifts. There were smiles. There were laughs.

"Beautiful day," Hilger recalled.

Late in the day, though, he started feeling a little off. His stomach was upset and bloated. Around midnight, he passed out on the bathroom floor. Tera found him lying in a pool of blood.

Hilger, 54, was rushed to Integris Yukon where doctors determined he was bleeding internally. They flushed his stomach to clear the blood, then went looking for the cause. They discovered a walnut-sized tumor in his esophagus just above his stomach.

Two days later — it was a Tuesday — Hilger's phone rang at 9 a.m.

"You have cancer," he was told. "All of a sudden ... " Hilger said, "your life changes."

Further tests revealed esophageal cancer, early stage 3. It hasn't metastasized and spread to any other places in Hilger's body.

Doctors told Hilger that chemotherapy and radiation and maybe surgery down the line were his best options. They were ready to start treatment right away.

Hilger wasn't so sure.

He has friends who dealt with cancer, who opted for a combination of chemo, radiation and surgery. Some survived. Some did not. But all struggled with complications from the treatments.

Hilger worried about the location of his tumor and the effect that chemo might have on other organs. His heart and his lungs are right near the tumor.

What if the chemo affects them?

"Chemo is poison," he said.

He paused for a long moment.

"You're taking a real chance there. You may shrink the cancer some, but what about the rest of you? I'm having a hard time understanding or putting myself into that position. I just don't know if I want to turn on the poison machine."

Hilger researched his options feverishly over the past month, reading studies and scouring websites and interviewing any expert or doctor who would take his call. And as of now, he has opted for unconventional treatments.

A vegetarian for nearly two decades, he has restricted his diet even more, for example. No sugar. All organic. Because he doesn't want the tumor to cause bleeding again, he is taking all of his food in liquid form. That includes a blended veggie drink with leeks, spinach and broccoli.

"And I'm gonna tell you, it is the nastiest," he said. "Basically, all I'm eating is soup every day. So if you love soup, then this is your deal."

He laughed.

"But it absolutely doesn't matter. It's like two-a-days of football camp — you hated it, but you had to get through it in order to get through the season. Well, I'm hatin' it. But it's the Super Bowl that we're after. It's the outcome. It's the remission."

Quarterback Rusty Hilger in 1984 Gator Bowl

Hilger knows a thing or two about getting good results. In his two full seasons as the Cowboys' starting quarterback, he led OSU to back-to-back bowls and won 18 games, including a first-ever 10-win season for the program in 1985.

To win, he worked.

The same is true now. From the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed, Hilger is doing something to battle his cancer. He takes high doses of intravenous vitamin C because the treatment has been shown to slow the growth of cancer cells. He ingests a concoction heavy on baking soda because cancer doesn't like to be in an alkaline state.

But wait, there's more.

Frankincense. Wormwood. Curcumin.

Ginger tea. Lemon water. Green tea.

"It's not as if we're not doing everything we can," he said.

Some might disagree because Hilger isn't doing chemo or radiation, and he knows he may regret this decision. He doesn't get a do over. He gets one shot. He realizes he has to be right — and he believes this is the best decision for him.

He feels good. Positive. Optimistic.

Terrified, too.

"I'm so scared," he said. "I do not want to die. It's not time. ... I'm extremely scared because I've got a family and I don't want to die. But I will tell you that I'm totally at peace if that's the plan. "I just know that the plan is going to be manipulated by me every step of the way."

He laughed.

"It's God's plan, but He also gave me the ability to go out and fight."


Why I Chose To Avoid Chemo, Radiation, and Surgery