The Will to Live, The Strength to Change: Overcoming a Death Sentence

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Faced with his own mortality, a Redding man had few options: Accept cancer’s death sentence or fight it. With his wife, Afton, by his side, Brandon Fitzgerald, 42, chose to fight.

His journey began in February 2008 when Stage 4 melanoma, typically a death sentence, was diagnosed.

Actually, it may have begun in late 2007.  He had a mole removed from his ear twice,  and after the second time doctors recommended further testing, but he didn’t follow through, a decision he came to regret.

In 2008 a lump developed behind his jaw. He saw a physical therapist for what appeared to be temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ.

The physical therapist felt the lump and sent him immediately to an ear, nose and throat doctor. She later told Brandon she knew it wasn’t TMJ — she could feel the tentacles of a tumor. By the time he received his diagnosis of melanoma it had spread beyond his jaw to his neck, lymph nodes and lungs.

Once the severity of his condition was known, Brandon tried two local doctors who specialized in cancer, but they focused on dying. He wanted to live.  He began to do research that led him to the University of California, San Francisco, and partners Dr. Wei Wang and Dr. David Minor, even before the biopsy result was known.

“We have the best sense of what we need,” Afton, his wife, said. “Never walk into any situation and give all the power to another person. Be your own advocate, even when facing a death situation. Learn as much as you can and don’t be afraid to say what you think or ask questions. Doctors aren’t gods.”

Melanoma starts with moles and is the most aggressive type of cancer, making it hard to treat. It doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation, Brandon said.

After his surgeries, a panel of doctors decided his treatment should begin with Interferon, a protein made in small quantities by the immune system in response to an infection. It is supposed to prevent the growth of cancer cells, he said. However, the tumor grew back and the pain intensified to unimaginable levels. “It was so bad I couldn’t participate in life,” he said.

His treatment was changed to using Interleukin 2 accompanied by five chemotherapy treatments called biological chemotherapy, which is also a naturally occurring protein in the body and activates the body’s immune system to produce natural cancer-destroying cells. “Though Interleukin 2 is considered an alternative treatment, it is FDA-approved,” he said.

Dr. Minor helped develop the Interleukin 2 treatment for metastatic melanoma, Afton said.

Brandon entered the California Pacific Medical Center’s intensive care unit with a heart monitor and began receiving Interleukin 2 intravenously for five days at a time.

This treatment is used on patients with advanced melanoma that has spread to other organs, such as the lungs or liver, according to the website http://www.melanoma.com. It explains: “Melanocytes are the cells that make melanin, which gives skin its color. Melanin also protects the deeper layers of the skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.”

Brandon said he had been an outdoor bartender and hadn’t taken precautions to protect his skin, and, as a result of the sun exposure, the melanocytes grew to become melanoma.

The treatment process was difficult, and what Brandon wasn’t prepared for was the mental toll it took.

He said he sank to such lows he didn’t think the fight was worth it. He felt hopeless and depleted, lost almost 70 pounds and wanted to give up, but Afton wouldn’t let him. When he returned home he still had to endure six chemotherapy treatments every three weeks that left him further down every time.

Brandon was prescribed Zoloft, an antidepressant, and Afton pushed him to eat better, take vitamins and exercise, even if it was just treading water.

“Life was hard, the fight was hard and there were times I didn’t want to live,” he admitted.

It wasn’t until the tumors began to shrink that he realized he might not die, and he snapped out of his depression, he said.

The Interleukin 2 is only effective in 16 percent of patients, who see regression in their tumors; and 6 percent have a complete response, meaning, no recurrence of the disease within 30 months.

He’s been in remission for six months.

“Afton saved my life,” he said. “Everyone should have an Afton, because that’s what it takes. You’re not thinking straight and you need someone to push you. She wouldn’t give up.”

Though it is too early to say he’s cured – there is a 30 percent chance the cancer could return within five years – he’s heard of people living 15 years cancer-free.

Afton says now that she couldn’t let him surrender: “Don’t let fear be the driving force. Don’t let fear blind you or control your decisions. Let it help to drive or motivate you, not control you.”

Brandon knows that any day the cancer may return, but he has vowed to change his ways.

His resolve was reinforced when he attended a memorial service for Redding fire captain Ed Andrews. Hearing of Andrews’ extensive involvement in the community, in particular with children, Brandon began to ask himself, “What am I leaving behind?”

He had worked in the service industry, which is motivated by profits and productivity, and “you tend to be selfish,” he said.

“Changing your behaviors is a gradual process,” Afton said. “You have to make an extra effort to think of others.”

She said if her husband sees someone in need, he steps in to help them. “It’s not about being selfish, but selfless.”

Afton was working at Hill Country Health and Wellness Center in Round Mountain, and as plans were being made for the clinic’s expansion, Brandon heard the plans included a café for staff and patients.

He got an idea.

He drew up a business plan and volunteered to be the guy to set up operations, order equipment and get the café, called “The Kitchen,” up and running.  He did.

Eventually he was hired.

Now the café is geared toward a learning experience for teens and young adults. Brandon has an assistant, Elizabeth “Libby” Dunlap, who also began as a volunteer, and the Smart Business Resource Center program pays for another employee. The rest of the crew members are volunteers.

The clinic received a Nutritional Education Grant that not only pays part of the salaries but also mandates fruits and vegetables be the heart of the café’s healthy menu.

As his strength returns, Brandon further develops the café program.  This fall they will conduct an outreach program to the elementary schools to teach young children the importance of healthy eating.

Brandon long-term goal is to write a café training manual and curriculum for 18- to 24-year-olds.

He will teach them how to work at each station in a kitchen for a certain number of hours. He’ll  teach running a small business, customer service, preparation, retail service, dish-washing and cooking.

At the end of the program he can certify that each person has been trained and successfully completed the program. He will also call potential employers with references and recommendations. He has spoken with Redding businesses in the county, and employers are excited about the prospect of being able to hire “a known commodity,” he said.

He’s giving back.

“I feel a lot better, enjoying life again, and I have a sense of satisfaction being a mentor and helping to raise them up so they can see their own potential,” he said.

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12 Responses

  1. Avatar Denise says:

    What an awesome story!

    I can relate on a level. My darling husband has Parkinson's.

    On a bad day we'll both say that he is not going to get better. On a good day, which thankfully most of them are, we ask ourselves, "Just for this day, how can each of us be an exceptional person in our role?"

    Brandon, thank you for being exceptional. You are inspirational.

  2. Avatar Celeste White says:

    Terrific story about a terrific couple! Brandon's quote, "Everyone should have an Afton," made me smile from ear to ear. So very true! She's a jewel. But then, Brandon is a gem. Hill Country is so lucky to have both of them working at the Wellness Center; they bring everything mentioned in this article and more, if you can believe it. Everyone working in the cafe is delightful, in fact, and the food is absolutely delicious. Plus, you know that it's nutritious and healthy.

    Thanks, Loretta, for such a marvelous, inspiring, and beautiful story; thanks, A News Cafe, for publishing it.

  3. Avatar Gary says:

    Great story……….. from someone who also survived Melanoma.
    Over twenty-five years ago I had a Melanoma removed from my right forearm. To be safe, they removed the lymph nodes in my right arm pit and checked them for Melanoma cells. There weren't any, which was a very good sign. Still had to have regular checkups every few months until I was finally given a clean bill of health.

    I have had semi-annual checkups ever since to be sure to catch anything unusual at the outset. This has resulted in the removal of several growths.
    If you see something that doesn't look right, better to have it checked right away rather than waiting as I did. If I had listened to my wife and gone to a dermatologist sooner, I could have avoided major surgery.

  4. Avatar Greg says:

    As a cancer survivor, I'm really pleased to see this article. It's the straight truth – you must be your own advocate in dealing with this disease, as the medical establishment for the most part does not seem able to do more than to poison or nuke tumors if they can't cut them out. For any real treatment that increases your life-expectancy you have to do it yourself. That being said, there are clinics and doctors that have a different view on how this disease can be treated, but usually your health insurance (if you have any) does not recognize them.

    This is a great pioece of news, and I thank you for it.

  5. Avatar Sandy Tincher says:

    You have the right attitude. My husband was diagnosed with Melanoma Cancer and given 6 months to live. He started every treatment he was able to get into and lived for 6 years. The doctors marveled that he made it that long as his had gone into the third layer by the time it was caught.

    A positive attitude is the way to go. Good luck

  6. Avatar Terri Kelly says:

    I was diagnosed with Stage 4 nodular melanoma in June, 2009. I have a very poor prognosis. As a matter of fact, the Kaiser emergency room Dr. called me 2 times last night to see if I was alive after seeing my labwork. I am on Interferon. The side effects are brutal. I was on Neupogen for 7 days because it bottomed out my white blood cells. It is so hard to be positive with such a lousy prognosis. I loved this story. It is hopeful.

    I know I should be more aggressive in my own care, but it is tough when you feel lousy. How do you deal with HMO's??

    My only real hope is a new drug, and it sounds like it takes forever for anything to be approved.

    Melanoma is pretty much the worst cancer you can have.

    Brandon is a tough guy. Good for him.

    • Avatar Brandon Fitzgerald says:

      Terri,

      Please look into the IL-2 treatment, it is my opinion the Interferon does not work very well for people like us. I tried it and it was like fertilizer for my cancer, it just grew and grew.

      Dr. Wang is my Oncologist, he can be reached at 415 885 8600.

      Good luck to you and gods speed.

      Brandon

      • Avatar Terri Kelly says:

        Thank you Brandon. I heard about Interleukin 2. Kaiser won't even think about it until I do interferon. I heard Interleukin is just brutal. I don't know if I could do it.

        You are a real inspiration. I will remember what you said. I will bring it up to my oncologist at Kaiser. (which I am stuck with due to financial reasons; lucky to have health insurance at all). God Bless you and your family.

  7. Avatar Debbie Riley says:

    My friend is Terri Kelly. She sent me this summary of what you went through, Brandon. Our motto is " No statistics are we !" Terri and I are members of a Wellness Community Cancer Group and find real support within that group and support from our leader.

    Terri and I are the only ones in the group with melanoma. We keep looking for articles and inspirational stories like your's and keep looking for new medication, treatments, doctors who have been successful with melanoma. We both live in Southern California.

    The drug my doctor ( a surgeon who specializes in treating melanoma and breast cancer) says is he wants to put me on Leukine. I look for things to be optimistic about, so Leukine is on my agenda as soon as I can get off my steroids. Leukine is different than interleukine, I think. Do you know or does anyone ?

  8. Avatar Brandon Fitzgerald says:

    I believe it is one in the same.

    If you need some support please email my wife and I at riverafton@yahoo.com

    Interleuken is not an easy treatment, there are highs and many lows. Keep the faith, live as well as you can.

    I will be praying for you and your full recovery.

    Brandon

  9. Avatar Edith Boros says:

    Dear Brandon,
    as a melanoma "client" since 2006 I also went through of all treatments:interferon,strict surveying etc until 2 years of silence my ugly "friends"reappeared.This year I discovered 4 (four!) new melanomas which were of course immediately removed.Then six chemotherapy treatments but useless since the two last tumors appeared right after the end of the last session.
    However,instead of giving up I decided to fight! Since my oncologist cannot offer me any treatment anymore but regular exams,I started to search for alternative treatments and I found a lot of them!
    What I'm really happy of is that even if sometimes very different they all agree in one thing:the necessity of a radical changement of the lifestyle.I started with the famous Gerson-theapy then ,very similar, I swiched to the COD tea therapy.They are hard to follow and I cannot do everything what is prescribed,but I beleive,the least positive changement will bring success.By the way my notorious migrain-attacs desappeared totally.
    Positive attitude is also very important,the will to live, which can deliberate strength we ignored we had.Well this is my story,hope to meet you all in 20 years on this page,healthy,happy survivers.
    God bless us all,
    Edith

  10. Avatar Terri Kelly says:

    Brandon, I am going on Leuko on Monday. It's called Biochemotherapy.

    Wish me luck.

    Terri Kelly