A bonfire blazed in the background of a picture many saw last week.
In front of the fire, posing and smiling, are Blake Anderson and his wife, Wendy. As Blake remembers it, the photo was taken during his first season as Arkansas State University's coach about five years ago.
By now, many have seen the messages, social media posts and updates that Blake has written on his iPhone notes app and posted to Twitter throughout last week.
By now, many are aware about the most grueling series of days for the Andersons since Wendy's fight against cancer began in April of 2017.
Until last week's brain surgery at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro to reduce swelling around tumor in her brain, the initial diagnosis of Wendy's breast cancer more than a year and a half ago was the scariest, most surreal moment of this journey.
"This has by far been the scariest, toughest week of the whole deal," Blake said Saturday. "The initial diagnosis is scary, but it's almost kind of not real at some point because you don't see it. It's still just a thought in your head that this is here.
"But when pain hits and you see her crumble like she did and fight like she did and all those type of things -- and nurses start running from one room to the next -- it becomes real really quick."
In the spring of 2017, Wendy felt an unusual lump while applying aloe vera to heal a sunburn. It was triple-negative breast cancer, a more aggressive form the Andersons were told was likely to spread and could recur even if/after she defeated it.
The Andersons announced to Arkansas State's 2017 team that Wendy was cancer free before the Red Wolves' 2017 season opener at Nebraska in September. One year passed and Wendy remained in the clear.
She accompanied Blake on ASU's Sept. 15, 2018, road trip to Tulsa and began coughing abnormally.
The Andersons tried to write it off as bronchitis. That wasn't it.
A respiratory infection? Nope.
Acid reflux? Unfortunately, no.
The family's worst fears started tugging: The cancer was back.
The Andersons kept the return of Wendy's cancer quiet until Nov. 25, the day after the Red Wolves' regular-season finale at Texas State. They wanted to limit the distraction and strain for Blake and the ASU football program.
Specialists told the Andersons surgery was not an option once Wendy's second bout with cancer began. Chest X-rays revealed the cancer had become more aggressive and spread to the lymph nodes, lungs, rib cage and liver.
The Red Wolves went 8-5 in 2018, including a 16-13 loss in the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 29 to Nevada.
After several meetings during the 2018 season with school officials and ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir, Blake announced Jan. 9 that he is relinquishing play-calling duties and is turning over the offense to a former protégé, Keith Heckendorf, who the school announced was hired the same day.
"Gradually, as the season progressed, as it became evident to me that my wife wasn't well, I became obviously focused on her and distracted at times," Blake said. "And I didn't do my job very well. I let it affect our football team."
Blake explained details were missed throughout the season, particularly in the bowl loss. It led to a season that fell short of the standards to which Blake said he holds himself and his program.
The 2018 season was not Blake's primary concern. Wendy's health was declining, and the team suffered because of it, he said.
"Bottom line, there's no way to prepare for what we're going through," he said earlier this month. "It became evident to me throughout the course of the season, to make it really blunt, that I just was not doing a very good job at my job."
Blake announced he had fired three assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, offensive line coach Allen Rudolph and outside wide receivers coach Chris Buckner -- on Jan. 9 and announced their replacements at the same time.
The next week, defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen, defensive line coach Brian Early, assistant head coach and cornerbacks coach Trooper Taylor, and running backs coach and special-teams coordinator Norval McKenzie took jobs elsewhere. Blake needed replacements.
He filled or reorganized the open jobs and split the defensive line coach position into two full-time jobs: defensive ends coach (Brandon Joiner) and defensive tackles coach (Ed Pinkham), the final hire Blake needed to fill out the staff.
By new defensive coordinator David Duggan's suggestion, Pinkham's hire was announced Friday.
The 2018 season ended, 2019 began and football did not stop. Neither did concern for Wendy's health, which ramped up more than a week ago.
"Got a quote for you ..." Blake wrote in a text message last week to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "CANCER ... SUCKS!!"
On Saturday, Anderson told the Democrat-Gazette how the situation went from bad to worse.
"She went to a point where she was not responsive to anything," he said. "She was breathing, but not responding. It got to a point where the swelling was so bad, the pain was so bad -- I mean, all of the above -- but her body just shut down. It quit."
On Jan. 18, Wendy's cognitive skills began to dissolve, so the family made plans for an MRI on Wednesday.
Wendy was becoming forgetful and stumbling over things. Her speech, thoughts and basic motor functions were being interrupted.
"A memory here or there," Blake said. "A word here or there. There were just things that were starting to be affected, so we scheduled the MRI.
"But she crashed before we got to that point."
At 5:19 a.m. last Monday morning, Blake fired off the first update from his phone.
"PRAYERS NEEDED," he wrote.
Wendy was rushed to St. Bernards with severe head pain and nausea. She quickly was moved from the emergency room to an intensive care unit.
"Once we got there, it got worse," Blake said.
Immediate tests and scans revealed the cancer had spread to the brain. Tumors, all five of them, were present. Wendy's brain was suffocating.
"What month is it?"
"Where are we?"
"What does your husband coach?"
Wendy had no answers or the wrong answers. Names were forgotten. The sudden severity of how ill Wendy was shocked her husband. Nurses asked him whether they should resuscitate if her condition worsened.
"When they start asking those kind of questions -- if she goes out, do we resuscitate? -- I'll be honest, we haven't even talked about those questions," he said. "I know what she believes in. I know what we both believe in. But we haven't talked about those kind of conversations."
Emergency brain surgery became a topic of conversation. In the ICU, medication temporarily calmed Wendy and tabled emergency surgery.
"Luckily, they got everything under control," Blake said. "It brought us back away from really, panic, to some degree."
The medications were not a permanent fix, Blake wrote in his next update on Wednesday. There was agreement among Wendy's doctors that surgery was needed to buy the Andersons time, at the very least, to figure out how to proceed against the brain cancer.
"We know where we're at now," Blake said. "It's the brain, liver, lungs, lymph nodes -- so we've still got a big, big fight ahead of us. But this was a huge first step, because she almost didn't make it out of the weekend."
Wendy underwent successful brain surgery at 10 a.m. Thursday morning. Pressure around the two largest tumors was relieved. Swelling was cut in half, Blake wrote in a Twitter post Friday morning, which was his second-to-last post in an exhausting week that ended Sunday, when Wendy exited the ICU and returned home.
"HOME SWEET HOME," Blake wrote in his final update Sunday.
Wendy's speech, and her basic cognitive and motor functions have all returned.
"She lost the ability to know any of those things for four or five days," Blake said. "When she woke up, even though she was really sore and really hurting and all of those things, they started asking her questions and she knew them immediately. We knew we had, at least, made some significant progress for now."
Wendy's health gripped social media through Blake's posts and sparked an outpouring of support.
Following the suggestion of Arkansas State Chancellor Kelly Damphousse, supporters began setting the bonfire picture of Blake and Wendy as their own profile pictures on Twitter and Facebook.
"#NotFightingAlone" spread like wildfire.
"Several people were asking me how they could help," said Damphousse, who added he vetoed hosting a vigil at St. Bernards because of obvious logistical issues.
The ASU men's basketball team wore warm-up T-shirts before Thursday's game that read, "We Fight With Wendy."
"The support's been amazing," said Blake, who also called it overwhelming. "God's got us right where he wants us to be."
After a week spent inside a hospital and on "ICU beds," Blake said that Saturday was the first day he returned to the captain's chair of operating a Division I football program while Wendy was stable and flanked by family.
"Luckily I've got a staff that's done a great job," he said. "[Mohajir, ASU President Chuck Welch and Damphousse] have been awesome. Most of them have been by more than once this week. But the staff's battling, recruiting and doing a great job on the road. We've got recruits in today. We've got recruits in next week. The team's been phenomenal.
"I've been here every second that I needed to be."
Sports on 01/28/2019
Print Headline: 'Scariest' week of all: ASU coach details wife's latest fight in cancer battle