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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