My father has cancer, but it doesn’t have him

You know those bad days when you feel down on life and maybe you’re feeling a little bit sorry for yourself? Well this story is for you, and me, and anyone else that needs a reminder that no matter how bad your day is, someone else is probably going through more. And it’s time to pick yourself up and keep on keeping on.

This is a story of survival and triumph with resiliency, strength, and pride. This is my father’s story.

In the past 4 years my father has experienced more trauma than most of us will see in a lifetime. He never complains and rarely speaks of what he has overcome. That is just his way. He is the strong silent type and that means that oftentimes his story is not shared, but it should be, because it’s one we can all learn something from.

A little over 4 years ago, my father collapsed in front of us when he went into cardiac arrest. My son Brayden was just 8 months old at the time. He was sitting on the floor and my father leaned over to play with him. When he attempted to stand up, he lost his footing and fell over. What we didn’t know at that time was at that very moment, his heart had stopped beating.

The paramedics arrived quickly and they were able to restart his heart. I listened as the paramedics told us they weren’t sure if they would be able to keep him going. The doctors explained to us at the hospital that my father had gone into V-fib, a very dangerous heart rhythm, that many don’t come back from. The next 24 hours would be critical to see if he would make it.

He did make it through the night, and then he made it through a triple bypass just a few days later. He fought back and he regained his health. Only 4% of people survive this type of ordeal. It is not surprising that my father was amongst the 4%. A fighter by nature, it took some time, but he found a way through.

His life had returned to a sense of normalcy when he retired last December. But he was about to be rocked again with news that just didn’t seem fair to someone who already had to overcome so much. Just a few weeks after retiring, he went in for routine blood tests and found out that he had leukemia.

We had a trip planned to South Africa before he received the news. He didn’t yet know the type of leukemia he had, which stage he was in, or if it was treatable. But as he has always done, he rallied. He packed up his bags and planned the trip of a lifetime, a bucket list trip as he called it. They started in Johannesburg and the finale was a five star safari in Kruger National Park.

My Dad and Mom in front of FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa.

My Dad and Mom in front of FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa.

I was also there in South Africa, but I was there for work. My parents stayed at the same hotel where me and my co-workers stayed. We had some really good times out at dinner, talking, and having drinks. Those types of moments leave you feeling so full, not just from too many South African steaks and red wine, but from being in the moment and enjoying every minute of it.

When you don’t know how much time you have left, every moment, no matter how mundane, feels like a blessing. We had many blessings on that trip, an abundance in fact.

Despite not having a definitive diagnosis, and not knowing what tomorrow might bring, my father was the life of the party. You can give this man lemons if you want to, but he will make lemonade. There is no denying his sense of calm when everything is against him, he perseveres.

Upon returning from South Africa, my father was diagnosed with CML (Chronic Myelogemous Leukemia). The good news was that there are medications you can take for this type of cancer. What we didn’t know was how he would react to them, how they would be paid for, or if they would even work. While they work for many, they don’t work for all.

He worked through the insurance quagmire to get the pills paid for as they can by upwards of $20K a month. Once he started taking his pills, he embarked on a different type of journey. These pills save lives and are the only known “cure” for cancer, but are actually small doses of chemotherapy that need to be taken daily. Sometimes your body works with them, sometimes your body works against them. Just like anyone else, there are good days and there are bad days. There are days you need a couple naps, some days you feel great, but it’s sometimes a challenge to get through.

He still continues to fight to see another day.

Many from the outside looking in would think he has lived a charmed life. While he has been blessed in so many ways, it has not always come easy. Just because people make it look easy doesn’t mean it is. It just means they are thankful for the opportunity in front of them each and every day, and they never stop fighting the good fight.

Some of us are born with it, some of us fake it until we can make it. A lot of us probably do a little bit of both. People like my father don’t even think about it, they just do it.

Last week, we joined my father as he walked in the Light the Night walk for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at the Reston Town Center in Reston, VA. Just after dusk, hundreds of us set off with various lighted balloons and glow sticks to honor the cause. Some were there in memorial to their loved ones. Many, like my father, were survivors. The lights lit the water as we passed by the lake. If you stopped to look around, there was nothing but lights in every direction, honoring survival, courage, and hope, remembering those who were lost, and standing in solidarity with those who continue to fight every day.

You play the cards you are dealt in life. And my father, Thom Garrity, has always played a helluva hand. No matter what happens, he keeps playing. In the wise words of one of his favorite singers, Kenny Rogers, ‘they’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealin’s done.’

The dealin may not be done yet, but we know he’s not either. Whatever the deck holds, we know from experience that the odds are in his favor.