Several years ago, Chuck said he started to have a dull stomach pain. “It wasn’t that bad, it just felt like I’d eaten something wrong.” The pain wasn’t alarming, and it was so intermittent that he didn’t bother to bring it up with his physician when he’d get his yearly physical.
The relatively mild symptoms persisted until they reached a devastating climax. After Chuck began losing weight at an alarming rate, and following exhaustive testing and screening, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Chuck, who had competed in half marathons and 10,000 meter races, who had been a bodyguard for prominent elected officials, who had worked as a police officer in drug enforcement, a man who was a self-described “tough guy” had just been told he had about a 5% chance to live.
Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare and incredibly difficult in many cases to diagnose. At the time, local providers were not able to conduct the meticulous screening necessary, so he was referred to OHSU. There he underwent a “whipple” surgery: a 10 ½ hour procedure that includes removing significant portions of the digestive system, among other things.
Following surgery, Chuck shared some of the challenges he faced: “I lost 50-60 pounds after the surgery, and suffered from jaundice. It was terrible. I wasn’t getting any better and at a follow up found out I needed a stint in my bile duct to get my system working again.”
Even when things started to get better, the cancer wasn’t done. “It moved to my lungs. I had a colleague once, when I was a police officer. We were on the drug enforcement side, and I arrested bad people, I stopped some really bad things. My colleague used to say, ‘Never count yourself out of the line of fire, one day there could be someone who wants to try and pull your gun and kill you.’ And that happened a couple of times in my career. But that’s nothing like cancer. With cancer, every day it is trying to kill you. The diagnosis, the surgery, jaundice. It spread to my lungs. Every time I went in for a scan I was waiting for more bad news.”
For Chuck, it was about much more than the physical fight. “The emotional part was sometimes the hardest. Yes the physical was hard, feeling sick through treatment, I’ve been through all that. But the emotional toll of waiting. Wondering, ‘When will my luck run out?’ And it just devastates everything. The first year, we were driving up to OHSU constantly. You watch your savings disappear. You don’t realize just how significant it is, how when the weather gets bad I have to drive a truck that gets low gas mileage, and those costs add up. So when someone at the hospital told me about these gas cards through Tour des Chutes. . .you just have no idea. You have no idea how much that means. I get to take that off my mind now; that is one thing I don’t have to worry about. You have no idea.”
Chuck goes on to describe the medicine he takes, and how the cost went from $40 a month to over $800. “The cost for my medicine, someone could drive a nice Porsche or something, but I need it just so that I can digest food.” Hardship after hardship, scan after scan.
At this point in his story I can start to feel the strain of three years of treatment, of scans, of wondering and not knowing. Chuck was asked to participant in a study at the Matthew Knight Center, and has been working with scientists there to study the tumors in his lungs. Miraculously, they are not growing. And while most people would probably focus on their own lives moving forward, Chuck is firmly entrenched in the lives of others.
“I read about Johanna on your website, the young runner who died of cancer. She was too young.” Chuck’s voice cracks. “It makes me so sad, and I would do anything just to give her one more day. So this study at the Matthew Knight Center, they can take information about my tumors and compare them to the tumors I had before, and it could make a difference. All it takes is one big break by a scientist, or a doctor, and it could change someone’s life. Tour des Chutes made it possible for me to be where I needed to be, in order to get the right treatment. That made it possible for me to be connected to this study. It has made the biggest difference in my life.
“Even if we cannot change the future for ourselves, we can change the future for someone else. You would not believe what you have done, you can’t possibly believe. . .”
Chuck pauses, and thanks us again. He calls his social worker that connected him with Tour des Chutes a guardian angel. He says he wants us to tell everyone out there who has ever ridden, or run or walked with Tour des Chutes, “Thank you.”