A 13-time cancer survivor shares his complex, long and frustrating cancer journey, and explains how he is able to keep hope alive.
I now reside in the town of Mesa, Arizona, just a few miles south of Phoenix. I am a proud grandfather of four who we have physical custody of. I live with my grandchildren, five chihuahua rescues, five chickens and five desert tortoise rescues who have space to roam and frolic. It all sounds perfectly idyllic – well wait, not exactly.
It was 1968, I had just turned six and was not feeling well. A trip to my family physician and a careful examination determined my tonsils were largely swollen and highly unusual. I made a trip to an ENT, who diagnosed me with oropharyngeal cancer, my first date with cancer surgery. As early as six years old, I learned to pray and trust God's healing grace. The surgery was painful but successful, thank God. This was the unfortunate beginning of my long journey with deadly cancers.
It was about two years later while I was attending second grade that I noticed an unusual growth on my right ear that was growing rapidly in size. My classmates were making fun of my ear behind my back in class, so I asked my parents to take me to our doctor. My family doctor decided to take a tissue biopsy and the results revealed squamous cell carcinoma. At such an early age it seemed cancer was going to be on my radar screen going forward. The top part of my right ear was excised and then surgically reconstructed by a plastic surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Grennen. Dr. Grennen seemed certain he got all the cancerous tissue. I prayed very hard that he was right.
I had become discouraged from chronic pain that never leaves, depression that makes it hard to even get up and get dressed, and a recent cancer diagnosis, plus recovering from surgery. My story is to encourage you to seek God's grace in healing our bodies and living in complete victory. God wants us to be well and to live in victory, overcoming any hardship that comes in our way. Make no mistake – the hardships will come.
During a routine yearly checkup, my family physician, Dr. Wallace, noticed an unusual bump on my right arm and did a biopsy that discovered it was a cancer called basal cell carcinoma. Thus, it was back to Dr. Grennen to have the carcinoma surgically removed. It seemed that I just might have a clear path to health as I had been free from cancer's bonds for a number of years. Despair reared its ugly head once more.
Then came the day I was working at a Chinese restaurant during my junior year in high school back in 1980. I felt an excruciating pain in my right side and physically collapsed. I was taken immediately to the hospital and had my inflamed appendix surgically removed. Post-surgery pathology determined my appendix was indeed malignant. Even with my Christian faith, my body was being tested yet again. On my knees I found myself once more.
That same month, my right hand began losing strength and became difficult to use at all. I sought out an orthopedic surgeon and he found I had developed an unusual malignancy in my right hand. It was chondrosarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissues. Surgery is the only option for this debilitating cancer. My right hand has never been the same, but I thank God I can still use it at all, and the cancer is gone.
I desperately fight a disease that terrifies everyone. I stay strong because I endure treatments that can feel worse than the actual malignancies. I am brave because my lab tests come back with news I really don’t want to hear. The reality of life with cancer is very different from the image I try to portray. Praise God for his mercy and healing.
My fight is simply a willingness to go through treatments and surgeries because, frankly, the alternative sucks. I endure pain and sickness for the chance to feel normal somewhere down the road. I have built up a form of emotional tolerance and acceptance of things I just can’t change. Faith and prayer kick in to take care of the rest for me.
The truth is that if you or someone you love has cancer, they probably won’t be completely open about what they’re going through because they’re trying so hard to be strong. From the very first diagnosis I was determined that cancer wasn’t going to ruin everything in my life. Doctors assured me that my cancers were all in check and my future prognosis was good, so I chose to believe them, prayed hard and embraced the future.
I had just turned 18 and had just started business college. My left shoulder was experiencing tightness and restriction in movement, so I was referred to an orthopedic surgeon for an answer. The answer I received from the magnetic resonance image (MRI) scan was rather terrifying news.
I had cancer in my left shoulder joint, my sixth cancer encounter. I would need major orthopedic and joint reconstruction surgeries to remove the cancer. The five-hour, intense surgery was successful as the cancer was removed, however a complete left shoulder joint reconstruction was required. The recovery time and physical therapy required was simply grueling. My faith and physical determination were challenged. Faith again propelled me to overcome another cancer setback.
Why was I being "tested" with these deadly cancers time after time? This question was at the forefront of my mind as I contemplated what lay ahead of me. I made a decision there and then that I was going to deal with these issues with the only weapons I had: prayer, patience and perseverance that had worked for me in my past healing.
I then began having tremendous pain in my left leg bone. My orthopedic surgeon ordered a bone scan to see what was going on. During the scan I noticed a bright light in my leg. I asked the technician what that light on my leg bone was, and all he told me was "It's not good." My surgeon confirmed that news, telling me I had a malignant bone tumor in my leg that had to be removed and there was a 50% chance I may lose my left leg.
The tumor in my leg was an osteosarcoma malignant bone tumor. The surgeons were forced to saw my leg bone in half to remove this tumor. The surgery took five hours to complete and I did not know how the bone graft would heal. Well, the recovery, physical therapy and healing took an entire year out of my young life. I had never prayed so hard in my life to God not to have my leg amputated at the left knee. God is good and I kept my leg as the graphs were successful.
I was able to finish college on crutches and focus on the future, after all, what more could cancer do to me after all that? I wouldn't have to wait too long to have that question answered. I was 28 and in the prime of my life, so to speak. I had a couple dark moles on my back looked at by a dermatologist at the insistence of my girlfriend. The doctor told me they looked harmless, but he sent the tissue samples to Mayo Clinic just to be certain.
I hadn't heard anything back for three weeks, so I figured everything was fine. Then I got the call that the doctor needed to see me that day. He did not beat around the bush! "You have two malignant melanomas, stage 4.” You could have pushed me over with a feather after he told me. Dr. Grennen told me the only option was "wide excision surgery," meaning he would take big scoops of tissue out of my back to get all the cancer.
So, I had two very wide excision surgeries within a three-month timetable. Large grafts of skin were taken from my buttocks to transplant over my gaping wounds. The pain associated with these two wide excision cancer surgeries and the skin grafts is indescribable and extraordinary. Prayers and lots of tears were the order of the day as a long, tumultuous recovery ensued over months of time. I survived stage 4 melanoma not once, but twice! It was nothing short of a miracle. What a loving God I worship.
I’m asked time and again how I’ve managed to remain the glass-half-full type of guy, and I’ve always been a Christian. Prayer indeed heals! I had amazing support from all my doctors and clinicians. Honestly, I really thought my personal war with cancer was over. It had been years since those horrible melanomas, and I had been seeing my oncologist, Dr. Saphai, for yearly screenings.
I relocated from Michigan to Mesa, Arizona in 2008 for a new job. I was having chest pain and my cardiologist found two arteries almost 100% blocked – I was having a heart attack! I was rushed into surgery to open my arteries with stents. After the surgery, I began suffering unbearable pain in my right side and back. I was rolled into the CT lab and a resulting scan showed a large renal cell carcinoma tumor in the center of my right kidney. The prognosis was not good at all. My surgical team and oncologist told me to get my final affairs in order. So, I did.
The surgery took over eight hours to perform due to several complications including severe blood loss (required blood transfusions) and extremely high blood pressure. This surgery I wouldn't wish upon anyone on this earth. I was in so much pain and discomfort afterward that all I could do was simply pray for God's grace and healing. I was in the intensive care unit for two solid weeks fighting for my life. Thanks to the doctors and nurses, somehow, I made it through. God is good!
Because of my faith, I’ve never once felt I had nobody to turn to. It’s crazy to say that I am accustomed to cancer and surgeries by now, but that’s the honest truth. My wife wasn’t feeling quite as brave as I was at that point. Survival instinct and faith simply kicked in to keep me focused, but a cancer diagnosis will always put a person in shock without a doubt. Have faith and keep positivity at the forefront of your mind is my advice.
As I slowly walked down the hospital corridor, I noticed an elderly couple with faces drenched in tears. “We’re sorry,” the lady said. “We overheard your conversation with your medical team. We hope you’ll be OK.” I apologized for upsetting them and told them I fully intended to get better with God’s healing grace. I had battled many cancer surgeries, lost weight and felt pretty rough many times. I had my share of infections and all the other delights oncology patients are subject to. But I emerged feeling victorious. At that point, I honestly felt I’d done my time with the whole cancer thing.
The truth is, I’d already known about my cancer risk, because my dad had died from cancer, and my mother had died from it also. But I thought at 59, I'd dealt with it. The truth is, just three weeks ago I was diagnosed with three malignant melanomas. Yesterday I had excision surgery to remove the cancers. I was pragmatic about the surgery. I honestly thought I’d be safe from cancer now. Sadly, I wasn’t. I knew the surgeons had found pre-cancer cells in the tissue of my back, but I’d been mistakenly assured that no further treatment was required. In fact, my cancer diagnosis came less than a year after that preventative surgery. Melanoma can spread, and that’s exactly what had happened.
For me, the worst aspect is the ripple effect. Cancer doesn’t solely affect the person alone – it hits family and friends too. It’s hateful having to tell my loved ones each time the disease comes back.
But by God's grace, I’m still here. Incredible advancements in research mean that treatments are improving all the time. Prognoses are increasingly positive, and more people now survive. For me, cancer is more like a chronic illness. I am a living example of that idea. Knowledge is power, and power can disperse much of the fear cancer exposes. I compare it to my diabetes, massive heart attack, lupus and Alzheimer's disease: you just learn to roll with it and pray.
I began writing and discovered that writing heals me and is therapeutic. I cannot emphasize enough the power of communication. Silence helps breed fear, and by sharing my story I can offer hope. I can point out that my number of cases is very unusual. It’s incredibly unlucky to have cancer this many times and only approximately 5% to 10% of cancers are genetic.
For now, I will heal my surgical wounds and prepare for the next round of treatment. I will keep playing with my grandchildren, watching "Survivor," raising my desert tortoises and chickens and walking my five little chihuahua rescues. I’ll continue to think about the future and plan ahead. Everyone’s life is full of ups and downs. We all have our issues to deal with. Mine just happens to be cancer.
If you’ve just been diagnosed or you know someone who has, please take heart from my story. Cancer is not always a death sentence. More and more people are surviving. I happen to be living proof that cancer doesn’t always win.
It is true that cancer has invaded my body, but I will never allow it to invade my mind and soul. I don’t lie awake at night simply contemplating my death. Cancer will never define who I am. It’s merely a part of my mortal life here on Earth and I have no intention of going anywhere for quite some time, God willing.
For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.