In December, 2003 my story begins. At that time, I had an episode of coughing up blood and was admitted to Iowa City Mercy Hospital. A bronchoscopy was done with a diagnosis of telangiectasia. This is a non-threatening condition with dilation of small blood vessels. No big deal. In early 2004 I had more episodes (coughing up blood). The same doctor began treating me for acid reflux. Then, in November, 2005, it happened again. The doctor performed a second ‘scope’ and a tumor was found. After additional testing at Mercy Hospital the doctor said, ‘There is nothing we can do for you here. You have a tumor about the size of a grapefruit in your lung.’
I was admitted to UIHC on November 18, 2005. I not only learned I had cancer, but I was a single parent with two great kids to raise! It was a low point in my life, for sure. Well, after many tests and biopsies, Dr. Mark Iannettoni removed the middle lobe of my right lung. The tumor, a synovial sarcoma not only involved the lung but had extended into surrounding areas. Once the surgery was done, Oncologist Dr. Gerald Clamon outlined a plan for me. The plan included 36 radiation treatments in early 2006 followed by 4 cycles of chemotherapy. With my treatment completed, I was required to return for oncology follow-ups starting every 3 months, then 6 months and finally graduating to 12 months! I got my life back! By 2008, I met my wife, had two more great kids in my life and I felt great. Even the occasional coughing fit and wheezing wasn’t a big deal. Life was good! In 2011, I had been 5 years cancer-free. I was a cancer survivor!
On December 23rd, 2011 I was scheduled for my 5 year CAT scan. I had been coughing and wheezing more than usual, but ‘no big deal’….so I thought! Dr. Clamon saw something he didn’t like and did a biopsy. He was the one to deliver the bad news. The cancer was back!
The monster had a complicated name, just like its characteristics. It is ‘monophasic synovial sarcoma, spindle cell type’. After 5 years with no major problems the tumor was back again and growing! At this point, Dr. Clamon suggested I meet Dr. Mohammed Milhem who had joined the staff in 2007. His expertise is Melanoma and Sarcoma cancers. That very day, I met ‘Mo’ (Dr. Milhem). Dr. Mo presented my case to The Thoracic Tumor Board in early January, 2012. It was determined that radiation was not a good option but there was a possibility the tumor could be removed if the surgeon agreed and if I could tolerate another surgery. Dr. Mo and I met again to talk about three different options. Here is how Dr. Mo explained things to me: “You are on a plane that is going to crash. There is a parachute on the plane and you know that the parachute only has a 50% chance of working. Do you take the parachute or go down with the plane?” He asked me what my choice would be and I asked him what he would do. No pause, no hesitation…Dr. Mo says, “I’d take the parachute and keep pulling the cord.” And that is exactly what I have been doing every day since January 13, 2012. Friday the 13th!
I have experienced many ‘ups and downs’ since then. To begin, there were four weekend ‘retreats’ at the hospital for five power-packed chemo treatments. Dr. Mo’s goal was to shrink the tumor size to the point where there would be a clean margin and Dr. Iannettoni could remove the tumor. On March 16th there was significant change and Dr. Iannettoni was willing ‘to take a look’. I wasn’t crazy about having another surgery, but knew it was my best chance. Dr. Iannettoni assured me that he would not continue unless he was relatively certain he could do the surgery without altering my quality of life! Unfortunately, the pre-surgery scope revealed that the tumor was too close to the bronchial tube to allow a clean margin. It was just too risky to move forward. Even with this devastating news, I had to look for options. And, Dr. Mo is a guy with many options. As he said to me ‘I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve.’ So, after my fifth round of chemo in May he suggested I take a ‘Dr. Mo vacation’. He said ‘rest, relax and have a good summer. I will see you in eight weeks.
We had hoped that the tumor would be zapped for 6 months to a year. However, eight weeks later on August 17th my CT scan indicated the tumor was growing again. With all routine protocol exhausted, we moved on with another option Dr. Mo had for me. On August 20, 2012 I started a clinical trial. I have become the ‘research’. I have become the ‘hope’ for others living with cancer, and those who will be affected by cancer in the future.
Since there has been funding for research at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Mo has about 14 trials ‘up his sleeve’ He will not give up! He has hope for me and all his patients, and so do I! I think Mo says it best; ‘I am not only asking you to join me and support the ride against cancer, I am asking you to become a part of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center team. Research is the only tool we have to increase our understanding of this disease.’
Right now, for me, it’s all about getting from Point A to Point B and then to C and D…. It’s all about ‘just one more’. One more treatment option…one more trial …One more day with my children, friends and wife…one more time to pull that cord and one more safe landing. JUST ONE MORE.
On March 15, 2013, Dan lost his courageous fight with cancer. He never gave up and often said, “if my treatment can help others I will do whatever it takes." Through the Courage Ride, Dr. Mo’s research and heroes like Dan, a cure may be on the horizon!