Gary has a lot of things he’d like to do in his lifetime. He’s compiled a bucket list, and recently checked off a big item – climbing the Manitou Springs Incline in Colorado – while being diagnosed with cancer, a feat he attempted, and failed, prior to his cancer diagnosis. Gary proves that cancer can’t rob you of your will, ambition and positive attitude.
Gary, a 61-year-old from Spring Hill, Kansas, was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer on September 5, 2014. Gary has been fighting his cancer, which has now metastasized to his brain, alongside Drs. Stilwill and Koffman, board-certified oncologists at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park, Kansas.
"Cancer is robbing me of many things, but not of my sheer will, humor or positive attitude. When I was given the diagnosis, I thought I would die within a couple of months—after all, the statistics show that 75 percent of us with small cell lung cancer die within the first year. And here I am, nearly two years later."
Gary is not only here, but he’s thriving. He first attempted to climb the Manitou Springs Incline in Manitou Springs, Colorado nearly eight years ago, but had to turn back. The incline is not only a test of physical strength, but also of will – it has more steps than the Empire State Building, gains more than 2,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile, and the grade can be as steep as 68 percent in places.
Gary is known for his resilience, can-do attitude and deep, infectious laugh and not the disease he’s battling. So in October 2015, he was determined to beat the mountain. Gary prepared with a regular exercise regimen and then gathered four of his most ardent supporters for a trip to Manitou Springs and a rematch with the incline.
“It took me two hours, during which time I would walk 30 or 40 yards and stop to catch my breath and there was a lot of pain involved,” he says. “At one point there’s a false top where you look up and think, ‘Wow, I’ve made it!’"
Gary did make it, despite his cancer, and his heart and soul propelled him to the summit of the incline on that bright fall Colorado day. He knows this cancer is life-changing but he’s living life, dispensing hugs and joy to those he encounters—friends and strangers alike—leaning on his faith and his healthcare team.
Gary’s journey began on a hot day in 2014 while on a run. Gary, an avid runner, lost his breath in the third mile. While this was alarming, he chalked it up to old age and being a bit out of shape. As these problems persisted, he went to his doctor. Following an EKG, he was told everything checked out and was sent home. Soon, he developed a cough and lost his voice which was not unusual for Gary. Two weeks passed and he decided he needed to see a physician. An X-ray revealed that perhaps this was more than a cough and a CT scan was immediately ordered, revealing Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.
Gary began his journey with Dr. Joseph Stilwill, a board-certified medical oncologist who specializes in lung cancer. With Dr. Stilwell’s guidance, Gary had radiation of his brain and lungs and five rounds of chemotherapy. He recently completed CyberKnife treatment for new lung lesions with Dr. Bradley Koffman, a board-certified radiation oncologist. The non-invasive alternative to surgery for the treatment of both non-cancerous and cancerous tumors, CyberKnife pinpoints a certain area with high-intensity radiation.
Following his CyberKnife treatment, and subsequent chemotherapy and external beam radiation, Gary is enjoying his life- walking, staying active and enjoying time with family and friends as he waits for the results of his latest treatment.
The father of three, Gary, or “Big G,” as his close friends call him because of his larger-than-life spirit, is looking forward to his son’s wedding in October and then a vacation with his wife, Terri, in November.
He hosts bonfires at his sprawling property that sometimes last until the wee hours of the morning (“maybe a few s’mores are involved, and some bad jokes and good stories,” he says) and cherishes every moment he spends with people he loves, including his physicians and nurses at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Menorah Medical Center. He continues to be monitored and visits his care team every three months for a check-up.