As Mother’s Day approaches this weekend, Sam Anas is thankful for the love and support of his mom, Deme.
Three-time cancer survivors are rare, but if there is anyone equipped to win that battle three times, it’s Deme Anas.
A prosecutor for the federal government, Deme is a Type-A personality that grew up in a household where hard work was not the exception, it was an expectation.
“I didn’t win many arguments as a kid,” Sam said with a smile.
Her father, George, was a physician who passed away from cancer just two years prior to Deme’s first cancer diagnosis in 1996. After work, George would come home and immediately get to work around the house, whether it was tending to a garden or woodworking.
Deme is much the same way, and so is Sam. When you’re 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, if you’re going to make it in professional hockey, you have no choice but to outwork everyone else.
“She’s a fighter, and that’s why she’s battled through this three times now,” Sam said. “Her work ethic in everything, whether she’s reading cases at home at night or whether she’s cooking up a storm for a party, she does everything full throttle. No matter what, she wants to go as hard as she can at it. And if she’s sick or something, she still doesn’t let it affect her.”
Deme’s first battle with breast cancer came in 1996. Sam was just three years old, and his sister, Georgia, was five. After visiting with her own doctors, she also met with her kids’ pediatrician to find out the best course of telling her children she was sick.
They decided to avoid using the term “cancer,” as that was associated with the death of their grandfather just a couple years prior.
“We used a pretty simplistic approach,” Deme said. “There’s something growing inside the body that shouldn’t be there and the doctors have to cut it out and give me medicine so that it doesn’t come back. And when you boil it down, that’s what it is.”
Keeping it that simple wasn’t always easy.
In December of that year, as Deme was going through chemotherapy, Sam got the chicken pox. With a suppressed immune system, Deme had to be mindful of not harming herself even more.
The daily battle against cancer was a grind for her. She was very ill from the chemo, throwing up on a daily basis. She lost all of her hair, but remained steadfast in protecting her children from the reality of what was happening. She was never without her wig, a hat or her “granny cap.”
Through it all, her children, and her husband, Peter, became her strength.
“When your life is threatened, you make your family your priority,” Deme said. “There were some things that we always did as a family. I think dinner together, vacation together and supporting each other in each’s activities and games … And going through crises together has been a part of my kids growing up.”
After beating cancer the first time, Deme went eight years in remission before the cancer returned in 2004.
“We had a family meeting and just decided then, ‘It’s come back, we’ve beaten it before and we’re going to do it again,'” Deme recalled. “We took a different approach because they were old enough to handle it and also had seen that we had gotten through it before.”
Deme’s friends and family helped chip in with everything as the Washington, D.C. native fought the disease a second time. Sam, 11 at the time, was a standout hockey player, while Georgia was excelling in soccer.
“We had a lot of people helping us out, whether it was bringing meals over or just coming over and hanging out,” Sam said. “Anything to just trying to take our minds off of her going through chemo.”
Deme’s second war with the disease was a little easier to handle. Treatment had evolved to the point where she wasn’t vomiting every day.
“That’s the worst part of it,” she said.
She also had the confidence of beating it once, combined with the motivation of her family, she refused to be denied a clean bill of health, which she received months later.
For the next several years, Deme followed her kids as they chased their dreams.
Georgia played collegiate soccer at Trinity College while Sam continued his ascent on the rinks in the Washington area.
In 2011, Sam was off to Youngstown, Pennsylvania to begin his junior hockey career with the United States Hockey League’s Youngstown Phantoms. Deme wasn’t a fan of Sam — at the time a Quinnipiac commit — dropping his academics for two years while only playing hockey.
As part of the deal for letting him go to the USHL, she insisted that he take college courses as well.
Sam was outstanding in two years in the USHL, scoring 37 goals and 63 points his second year in Youngstown before heading off to Quinnipiac. After a standout freshman year where he was named the nation’s top collegiate rookie, Sam was a second-team All-American as a sophomore and a first-team All-American as a junior.
He signed with the Wild the following summer having earned his degree in business and entrepreneurship.
Sam scored 28 points in 66 games as a first-year pro in Iowa in 2016-17 before jumping to 26 goals and 61 points last season.
On the doorstep of achieving his ultimate goal of reaching the NHL, he went home for the offseason eager to have his best summer yet.
Not long after Memorial Day, Sam returned from a trip to Nashville. Deme picked him up at the airport and asked about his journey before the subject suddenly changed.
“She dropped the bomb on me,” Sam said. “I was just speechless. She’d gone through it once, it’s crazy for her to do it again. And now a third time? You’re just thinking, ‘Why her? She’s already been through so much and she’s done so well, and now she has to go through it again?’
“Any time you hear that ‘c’-word, especially with a close family member, it’s tough to handle. That was pretty tough and it took a while to soak in.”
As Deme readied to fight for a third time, Sam was there. For two months, he was available to assist every step of the way.
“I was happy I was home for the summer,” Sam said. “It helped her that I was around during the day, and it helped me because I was able to be with her throughout the process and not have to hear everything through the phone.”
Once September rolled around, however, it was time for Anas to leave for Minnesota and training camp for a new season.
But not everything was going well back home.
Deme was having issues in her recovery and needed two operations to get things right, including one procedure that lasted more than nine hours in November, and another one a month later.
Sam struggled at times to keep his mind right in Iowa while worrying about what was happening back home. He went the first 10 games of the season without scoring a goal.
“He doesn’t show it much, how down he is,” said Iowa forward Gerry Mayhew, Anas’ roommate. “I’ve never been through it but I can imagine how I’d feel.”
Mayhew said he’d try and keep the mood light by joking around with him. They’d engage in some intense games of NHL 19 on Xbox.
But there was no question that his mom wasn’t far from his mind.
“They wanted me to just focus on hockey,” Sam said. “But when you know she’s going through that, and the biggest thing was those surgeries. That was tough.”
Sam continued to play, tallying three goals in the first 18 games of the season. In Game 19 against Grand Rapids, Sam took a slash to his hand. An X-ray revealed no damage, but about a week later, Anas had an MRI.
It came on Dec. 3, the same day as Deme’s second surgical procedure.
“My poor husband is waiting in the waiting room for me when he gets a call from Sam,” Deme recalled. “He asked Sam how the MRI went and he said, ‘They looked and found something was broken … and by the way, I’m having surgery tomorrow.’ And my poor husband, he was like, ‘Sam, I can’t get there tomorrow.’
“Sam had never had surgery. He had to take an Uber to the hospital and Gerry Mayhew picked him up. As a parent, the thought of your child taking an Uber to the hospital, even though he’s an adult … it was hard.”
A week later, Iowa went on the road to Texas. Unable to play, the Wild let Anas go home for six days to be with his mom while both recovered.
The time spent together was beneficial for both.
“We had a week where it was just the two of us again,” Deme said. “We just hung out and relaxed and talked. It was good.”
“It was a mental reset, I think for both of us,” Sam said. “It was just nice to be around her.”
As he readied to head back to Iowa, she left him with a simple message: The first part of the season is over and it was time for a fresh start.
“We have a game-day text that I send him every day, the same words, and it hasn’t changed for I don’t know how many years,” Deme said. “Good luck tonight, skate hard and keep shooting.”
The message continued: “You have the rest of the season to show what you can do and to prove people wrong, to prove what you can do.”
While the time away wasn’t ideal, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. Sam returned to Iowa and has looked more like his old self during the second half of the season, especially late in the year.
He finished the regular season with 38 points in 60 games, but has come on strong so far in the playoffs, scoring once and dishing out five assists for six points in eight games.
Deme has watched from a distance, making the trek to Milwaukee for one playoff game while hoping for more in the coming weeks, as Iowa aims to keep its Calder Cup hopes alive.
Sam’s mom still isn’t far from his thoughts but he’s able to now think about her without fear after a successful third battle against cancer.
This Mother’s Day will have special meaning for him and his family.
“When I was in eighth grade, we had to write a one- or two-page speech about who your hero was,” Sam said. “It was something I had never really thought about, and you’d think it would be a hockey player that you look up to. But as soon as I put that pen to paper, I just immediately thought about her and all that she’s persevered through. And she’s still been amazing at her job but she’s an even better mom and everything I could have ever asked for.”
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