By Andrew Kuzyk
Each year, right around Christmas, I post a simple message to thousands of folks I've never even met, telling them essentially, "I'm still alive." My oncology doctors told me years ago that I'm the only six-time cancer survivor in the world. Within days, a tremendous chorus comes back, 175 voices, reaching 500. Many ask, "How did you survive?" They sometimes begin with, "Tears are flowing." A few answer back in kind, "Right there with ya." It's now eight years and I am still on this earth.
Surviving cancer once, twice, maybe three times may be rare, but six times is simply unheard of. What is in a human being to survive is beyond explainable. We have all heard about the survival instinct, but until you are put into a survival situation, you have no idea what you are really capable of. I am truly a remarkable fighter who has beaten cancer SIX times, also suffering from lupus and Alzheimer's I have defied any and all expectations to reach my 53rd birthday! I am still fighting, despite enduring a multitude of cancer operations, including two my surgeons thought I would not even survive. I have every wicked surgery scar to remind me of my six multiple battles with deadly cancers.
Being a feisty father and grandfather from McDonough, Georgia, I have fought through so many medical issues it is mind boggling. My health issues began when I was diagnosed with an acute cancerous appendix at the ripe age of 17. I required emergency surgery just before the organ would have ruptured, causing fatal infection to my body. Appendix cancer tends to be rare, affecting an estimated 600 to 1,000 Americans each year. Unfortunately, appendix cancer often remains undiagnosed, like mine was until my emergency surgery. Appendix cancer mysteriously has no known cause. At the time, I had no idea I would tangle with cancer yet again soon. I had always been a physically active person. A few months after the bout with appendix cancer, I had several episodes of pain in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen. I thought I may have gallstones and decided to avoid high-fat foods because a high fat diet increased gallstone risk.
Later that year, however, I started having steady nausea that became constant. I was also having some coronary artery issues and was scheduled to have several stents surgically inserted. It was in the recovery room, after the cardiac stent procedures when I felt unbearable pain in my midsection. My doctor ordered an abdominal ultrasound, which showed irregular thickening of the gallbladder walls. They couldn't rule out carcinoma, but a surgical specialist reassured me that "cancer was highly unlikely." He had done thousands of gallbladder surgeries and rarely saw gallbladder cancer. He said, "It was very rare, and if that were the case, you would probably be dead by now." Well, my surgeon removed my gallbladder laparoscopically, but the news wasn't good. Unfortunately, the pathology came back showing T2 gallbladder cancer. I fought the disease by having my cancerous bladder removed before the cancer could invade my entire system. The statistics for gallbladder cancer are not very reassuring. I went into surgery hoping to live two years. My wife and five chihuahuas were very supportive during my treatment. My wife was a blessing to me, always making sure I stayed positive.
Two years later, I went to a dermatologist to have a mole examined. I have a condition called dysplastic nevi syndrome, meaning I have a higher potential for skin cancer than others. My moles are darker than average and tend to turn into the deadly malignant melanoma. Two shave biopsies were performed and pathology tests showed very deep Breslow depths with tumors present in deep margins, as well as peripheral. An oncology team referred me to a general surgeon after reviewing my poor prognosis. With deadly stage IV malignant melanoma, a wide excision surgery was the only radical treatment known to attack and remove the cancer. It is a miracle in itself to survive a stage IV cancer attack. The cancer left my back looking like a cruel battleground of scars. The surgeon cut as deep as possible, but still did not know if he got it all. I would have to be examined for the rest of my life for the possible return of the deadly malignant melanoma cancer.
The toughest one was the renal cell carcinoma or kidney cancer surgery. Having a kidney removed was the most difficult of any of the six cancer surgeries. Just one year previous, I was forced to have my left leg surgically sawed in half and almost amputated because of infection, to remove a malignant bone tumor lodged in the center of my leg bone. The recovery period for these two surgeries was intense and lengthy. My body now looks like a battlefield with scars everywhere. A major skin graft was taken from my upper thigh tissue to cover the wide excision scars on my back. Somehow, I fought through these cancer surgeries through prayer and perseverance. After one operation, I opened my eyes and the surgeon actually told me the operation was over, but he wasn't certain if I would pull through, due to serious infection concerns. My six multiple cancer diagnoses don't appear to be based on genetics, just dumb luck.
Two years after the grim stage IV diagnosis, I confessed to a close friend that the doctors had said I realistically only had two years to live, tops. I had kept this information to myself because if I were to say it, then it was true. I now continue to hold my breath, now that I am now past that deadline. I have spent the last eight years holding my breath, as I enact every New Year's resolution, past and future. There's a small subcategory of people with stage IV cancer, it turns out, who live for years after being diagnosed. This group constitutes about 2 percent of all cancer cases. Doctors can't predict who will fall into this category.
I told them, "I'm a fighter." Somehow, I have managed to fend off the infection and slowly recovered. I pulled through because of my fighting spirit, belief in God and the skill of the surgeons who performed the procedures to remove the deadly cancer. I now fight a myriad of daily health issues including Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, lupus, heart disease, peripheral neuropathy, and needing both knees surgically replaced. I now live with my wife and chihuahuas in a small basement as the camper we were living in burned down recently, we are barely hanging on to survive these days.
I've had it tough with the cancer and other ailments I guess. I cannot really do much at all these days. I consider myself a cancer "frequent flyer," being operated on for six bouts with different cancers now– how many people can say that? I try not to let my physical and mental conditions run my life, but it takes everything that is within me to get through another painful day. If you want to help a friend diagnosed with cancer, just be there. Friends can't make the fact that you have cancer go away. They can't make it all better. They can, however, help you feel safer. When you’re scared, it's important to know that someone is there.
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