When you have to go in for chemotherapy during a pandemic, you have to go in alone.
You have to do a lot alone actually.
Complications are complicated and it's best not to risk any. So day-to-day you’re allowed to see immediate family and no one else. You’re stuck at home. And any chemo, any radiation, any treatments, they’re all done alone. You’re stuck on an island. And you’re uncertain about so many sudden burdens that have been thrown at you without your consent, but you know an island is the last place you want to be.
On March 13, Crystal Cuadra-Cutler was diagnosed with lung cancer.
To be more specific, Crystal was diagnosed with stage three, non-small cell cancer. Even more specifically, adenocarcinoma. The cancer forms in the mucus-secreting glands in the lungs. There’s typically coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath. The survival rate is somewhere around 20%.
That same day, the United States confirmed its 2000th case of COVID-19. That number reached 18,000 a week later. Normal treatment—whatever normal means here—would quickly become impossible.
"Here to lead"
Crystal Cuadra-Cutler (standing, second from right) with fellow Earthquakes supporters from The Faultline.
Crystal Cuadra-Cutler has missed three (3), count them, three (3) San Jose Earthquakes home games since 2009. Not Seattle Sounders games, not LA Galaxy games, games played by the San Jose Earthquakes. Since the Quakes returned from a brief hiatus in the mid-2000s, they’ve made the playoffs as many times as she’s missed a game.
Crystal started following soccer with the 2006 FIFA World Cup. That same year, San Jose became the Houston Dynamo. A couple of years later, the Quakes came back to San Jose and she started going to games. She got involved with a supporters’ group. All of this snowballed into her not only helping start her own Quakes supporters’ group, The Faultline, but becoming a regional director for the US national team group, the American Outlaws. She also helps out with a couple of the other San Jose SGs.
Like so many of us who started following the sport later in life, she threw herself into it. She just happened to throw herself into it with a little more force than most. To be involved on that level and deal with the most passionate among us day after day takes a certain kind of person.
“I wanted to be part of a supporter group and The Faultline just happened to be the right one at the time for me,” Faultline member Dave Romero said. “Crystal welcomed anyone who was coming along with open arms. Over the years I've gotten to know her a lot better and as I've gotten more involved with The Faultline and with the American Outlaws here in San Jose and gotten to see her in action with the way she's coordinated big events for the Outlaws. And some of the stuff we've done with the Quakes is amazing. She has the ability to bring people together.”
It’s not just her ability to bring people together. She has an ability to lead. Crystal has found a place as a capo with the American Outlaws. When a US national team comes anywhere near California, you’ll usually find her on a stand in front of the supporters’ section orchestrating chants. She’s even persuaded others to join her on the stand.
A convincing pitch from Crystal is how American Outlaws' Oakland founder Heather Borjon found herself in front of the supporters’ section for the first time while trying to fight a splitting headache and coordinate songs during a 2015 game. In the Gold Cup. At the Rose Bowl. Against Mexico. Basically the American capo version of making your music debut at halftime of the Super Bowl.
Crystal capoed with her throughout the game. And even if the USMNT didn’t make it through that game unscathed, Heather did. It helps when you’re getting advice from someone who’s good at what they do.
“You can just see her passion. It's the whole thing with being a capo,” Borjon said. “You're not watching the game, you're not there to enjoy the game. I think you're trying to get everybody else into it. So that was one thing she reminded me of, she was like, ‘Hey, you're not out here to watch games, you’re here to lead.'”
Heather, a teacher, found out about Crystal’s diagnosis the same day COVID-19 shut down her school. But with most of her world crashing down, she didn’t just stand and watch. She led.
Chanting for Crystal
Cuadra-Cutler also leads the American Outlaws chapter, here posing for a photo outside Earthquakes Stadium in San Jose.
A month and a day after her diagnosis, a family member drove Crystal to her first session of chemo.
They made the 30-mile drive to the treatment center and then Crystal would go in alone.
A few miles away, Crystal got a message from Heather on her phone. Nothing more than a link. She clicked and a video started up. It was American Outlaw members doing the same chants Crystal had conducted plenty of times before, but with a twist. For the first time, instead of being for Christian Pulisic or Alex Morgan, the chants were for her.
“There's a lot of emotion on the first day of chemo, especially with it being the first day. You don't really know what to expect. I was having some reactions for the drugs that they gave you beforehand. So it was very nerve-wracking to begin with,” Crystal said.
“And then I got the text that had video and I started watching it and I just started crying because I felt like for that moment, knowing how tough that day was going to be, that everyone was behind me and everyone was there to support me.”
Later, the American Outlaw members who couldn’t participate in the first video jumped on a Zoom call to show their support for Crystal. Members from Portland, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and even as far away as Australia joined.
“They only show like the first 25 people on the screen,” she said. “And we got through the first 25, and then the screen moved to show even more people that were on the call. It was a little overwhelming. I couldn't believe that many people would show up for me in that way.”
Players become the supporters
MLS all-time leading scorer Chris Wondolowski (left) and ex-MLS defender Jimmy Conrad (right) were two of the players who showed their support for Crystal.
It hasn’t only been the American Outlaws making videos. It seems like the entire American soccer community has shown support for Crystal.
When doctors informed her of the potential cost of her treatment, she started a GoFundMe page. A $10,000 goal has been bypassed and $11,604 has been raised thanks to contributions from fans of Crystal all over the country. None other than Landon Donovan is among them.
Donovan isn’t the only player to show their support for Crystal. Jason Hernandez, Charlie Davies, Shea Salinas and Jimmy Conrad have all reached out in one way or another. Oh, and also, MLS all-time leading scorer Chris Wondolowski. THE San Jose Earthquake. Crystal made a banner featuring him six years ago for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It’s her lucky banner. And it shows up everywhere Quakes related. It even showed up at MLS is Back.
After San Jose advanced to the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament, members of The Faultline organized a welcome party for the team bus. Crystal put on a mask and went. It was the first time she’d been out in over three months. Of course, she brought the Wondo banner. Wondo, of course, got off the bus and sought Crystal out to say thanks.
The next time they saw each other was over Zoom. A Quakes Q&A. Before Crystal could even ask her question, the support got flipped again. Wondo wanted her to know he was with her in her fight. The players she supports and the fans she helped organize are reflecting everything she’s done back on to her from both sides.
“I feel like they’re giving back to me for all the years I gave to them,” she said. ”Soccer is my second family and my community. Without them, I don't know where I'd be.”
When all you can see is your immediate family, it must be nice to know your extended one can fill a stadium.
Crystal is raising money for the LUNGevity Foundation, the leading private provider of research funding for lung cancer. You can donate here.