BILLINGS — Tom Cardwell was upbeat on Friday at the Great American Championship Pro Motorcycle Hill Climb.
And he had every reason to be. After being diagnosed with leukemia in late April and spending more than a month in the hospital for treatment, the 56-year-old father of Magic City hill climbing standouts Sean, Austin and Tyler Cardwell was back at the Billings Motorcycle Club grounds, located in the South Hills.
“I’m happy to be alive, man. It’s a good day,” Cardwell said while sitting in his camper while Austin and Tyler prepared their bikes to compete. “I wake up and it’s a good day. There is a big alternative if we don’t wake up.”
While the fight is not over, Cardwell said currently he is at “zero percent blood abnormalities, which is where they want me to be. They’ll continue to make sure it’s all killed.”
When he first learned he had cancer, Cardwell said “it was massively shocking.” Cardwell suffered from a brain aneurysm in 2005 and said the symptoms were similar.
“It was a lot of the same symptoms, my massive headaches and stuff, but then I started getting weird marks on my skin,” he said. “I eventually turned really white and I didn’t have any blood left.”
Sean urged his father to go to the hospital.
“I’m a diabetic and I don’t check it as much as I should and I couldn’t get any blood out of my finger,” Tom recalled. “And he (Sean) said you have to go in. It was good that I did.”
The doctors ordered tests, which revealed the leukemia.
“I was in the hospital for 35 days,” Cardwell said. “I had 34 chemo treatments in the hospital.”
Tyler Cardwell, 22, said his dad is he and his brothers’ “No. 1 supporter, he does everything for us.” The Cardwell brothers have traveled near and far to compete in motocross and hill climb events and are a tight-knit family.
Tyler said he found out his dad was sick while studying at Montana State University and he had to come home.
“Cancer is scary,” Tyler said. “When you think about cancer, it is scary and not easy to beat. The moment hit hard.”
Tyler said it was hard seeing his dad in the hospital.
“It was tough. It was right when I was finishing school in Bozeman,” Tyler said. “I came back here and hung out with him and visited. That is a hard thing visiting in a hospital. It’s not where you want to be.”
Eventually, Cardwell’s condition improved enough to where he could go home. Cardwell said he still has 2.5 months of treatment left, but he is between rounds. Treatment includes oral chemotherapy pills and intravenous chemotherapy.
To help with Cardwell’s medical costs, the BMC will be raffling off a helmet signed by the top professional hill climbers competing this weekend. Raffle tickets are available over the course of the hill climb and the drawing will be at approximately 8 p.m. Saturday night said club treasurer Darrell Devitt.
Devitt said Cardwell is known for helping riders work on their motorcycles.
“He always helps guys out with their bikes and stuff,” Devitt said. “Mechanically, he knows quite a bit. He has three boys racing and they have friends and he’s always working on somebody’s bike.
“He’s a fixture in the club. I remember his kids in the mini-bike classes and now they are all pros in the Great American.”
Pat Whitmer, an executive board member with the BMC, said over the years Cardwell has prepped the track for numerous motocross events and operated heavy machinery to help set up competitions. Whitmer said Cardwell has also served as a promoter for the club. Cardwell joined the BMC in the late 1970s.
“Everybody knows him and he’s always right there asking, ‘What do you guys need, what do you guys need?’ Whitmer said. “He’s done so much for us. No task was too small or piece of equipment too large.”
Cardwell is grateful for all the help he’s received. At the Nitro National Pro Hillclimb in Columbus, promoters held a drawing and raffle to help with his expenses, Cardwell said. There was also a benefit at the Powderhorn Lounge, and his sons raised funds through social media.
Tyler said he competed in hill climbs in Wisconsin and North Dakota recently and there was an outpouring of support.
“It’s been really cool,” Tyler said. “It is like a hill climb family. I’ve had support from other riders and their parents.”
While Cardwell recovered, Tyler and Austin kept their dad up to date on what was happening in the world of motorcycle racing. Sean is not currently competing due to a knee injury. Cardwell has been staying at Sean’s house while he recovers.
After the long road, Cardwell was happy to be back to where he belongs, cheering on his sons at the Great American Championship Pro Motorcycle Hill Climb.
“You bet, that’s why I’m here, to cheer on my sons,” he said.