Coming up on my 20th year of survivorship, my world has never revolved around the fear of cancer, but rather how grateful I am to be able to live the life I have lived.
Up until my first brain cancer diagnosis, my life was fairly normal. I grew up in a suburb near West Palm Beach in Florida, I was raised by a single mother and I'm the youngest of three. Ironically, my siblings were always the ones that caught seasonal colds. I never got sick, until I got sick. My mom had colon cancer when I was young and I went with her to all her chemotherapy treatments from the age of four to six. My grandmother and great grandmother had also had colon cancer, we found out years down the road it stemmed from a hereditary genetic mutation called Lynch Syndrome, which leaves you prone to cancer, but we had no idea until I got sick. It came out of nowhere. I was always active; I loved to skateboard, play football, and wrestle. But in April of 2003, at the age of 10, I began having headaches.
These were the first headaches I had ever had in my life and they were so bad we thought they were migraines. At the time, we were moving house so we wondered if maybe I was allergic to all the cleaning products we were using. But it got to the point where I was seeing my pediatrician three times a week with these headaches, and they would cause such severe nausea that even drinking water would cause me to projectile vomit. I also started having very vivid episodes of deja vu; I would enter these lucid trances where I would know the smells or the people in the room before I entered, or the taste of food I hadn't eaten yet. I can't explain it, it was very strange but I was never afraid. On May 6, 2003, I was sent for a CT scan and when we went back to the pediatrician the same day, they told my mom they had found a brain tumor. We went home and packed a bag and went to the Palms West Hospital in Loxahatchee, Florida. Doctors confirmed I had a brain tumor and I came to find out that the episodes of deja vu were actually epileptic seizures caused by the tumor. Due to my age and where the tumor was, on my right temporal lobe, they wanted to make sure there would be no cognitive issues or physical disabilities as a result of surgery. Doctors gave me a Wada test, which determines which side of your brain is responsible for language and memory. After that test, the neurosurgeon told me I was 100 percent ambidextrous. If anything happened to damage the right side of my brain, those skills could be picked up by the left side. I had my surgery about 10 days after arriving in the hospital, and afterwards, the surgeon said it was the easiest brain surgery he'd ever done because my tumor was completely encapsulated, which means it was contained and surrounded by tissue. The tumor was immediately sent to pathology and the report revealed that it was brain cancer.
My mom was told that it was a very aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme, that it was Grade IV and that I had 16 weeks to nine months to live, based on what they had previously seen. So, I immediately started the post-surgery protocol, which was chemotherapy and then 36 radiation treatments. I lived, but a year to the day of my first diagnosis, I relapsed. I knew a tumor was back prior to the MRI. At the age of 11, I called my oncologist, Dr. Narayana Gowda at St. Mary's Hospital in West Palm Beach, asking for my MRI to be moved forward, because I had started experiencing the episodes of deja vu again. I had my second surgery to remove another brain tumor on my right temporal lobe, which was also completely encapsulated, at Miami Children's Hospital, which is now Nicklaus Children's Hospital on May 19, 2004 and was released from the hospital less than 48 hours later. What I didn't know at the time was that I was released with no plan and no hope whatsoever. I was given six weeks to live. The doctor told my mom that there was really nothing else they could do. They had tried the post-surgery protocol after my first surgery and it hadn't worked as I had relapsed. From there my mom got in touch with Duke University in North Carolina and we were lucky enough to get a consultation three or four weeks later with pediatric neuro-oncologist Dr. Sridharan Gururangan. My mom consented for him to put me on an experimental protocol of a cocktail of chemotherapies that had not been used to treat brain cancer before, and the Pediatric Oncology Support Team (POST) is in West Palm Beach, which is where I had my chemotherapy administered at St. Mary's Hospital, allowed me to get my intravenous chemo in their office, every Friday for two years. One of the things I give credit to my mom for is that I didn't know about my prognosis until I was in my early 20s. The attitude was always, "we're going to try everything," and my oncologist in Miami was always on board. I was surrounded by a group of people who weren't going to give up on me and weren't going to let me give up on myself.
My own attitude stemmed from what I saw in some of the other pediatric patients. There was a boy called Stephen who was in a wheelchair and had been since he was 2 years old when his legs had been amputated. He had a rare disorder that caused his body to produce tumors everywhere. He had never ridden a bike, never swum and he had lost his mom and sister at a year old in a car crash. But this kid had the best attitude on the face of the earth. He would make everyone laugh and he never felt bad for himself. By the time passed away at the age of 14, he had no legs and only one arm, but he had such a great attitude. He was such an amazing person and I knew that if he could have that attitude with his situation, there was no excuse for me.
I finished treatment in September 2006 and on my follow up MRI in October all my images were still clear, so I was told I was in remission. My life then was as normal as I could make it. The good thing about having the mom I have is that she understood I wanted a normal life, even though there were parts that weren't going to be normal. For example, I loved football, but football and a child in brain cancer remission don't really mix. But from 2006 to 2019, everything was going exactly the way you would expect a normal life to go between those ages. I graduated high school and college and began working in sales, living by the water in Delray Beach, Florida.
Then, in early 2019, I started having pain in my jaw. I always had jaw issues post-surgery, so I thought it was a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), and went to a TMJ specialist, who took an X-Ray who said I needed jaw realignment surgery for an underbite. But I decided to get a second opinion from an oral maxillofacial surgeon who took an MRI and told me it was actually a tumor about the size of a baseball and diagnosed me with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
From there, I was put on a protocol of 16 infusions of chemo, which shrunk the tumor until the surgeons were comfortable enough to remove it. On February 12, 2020, they removed the tumor and because it had encompassed my jaw and cheek muscle, they performed a mandibulectomy, which removes part of the lower jaw, and replaced it with bone from my left fibula and surrounding muscle and a metal plate to completely reconstruct my face. But immediately after that surgery I developed a rapidly expanding hematoma, which broke out of my skin and burst my stitches in the early hours of the morning. About four hours after my jaw surgery, I went in for another second emergency surgery to evacuate the hematoma.
I always tell people I would rather have two brain surgeries again than the surgery for osteosarcoma. During the recovery from that surgery, I was in so much pain. Although further chemo was suggested by the surgeons, I chose not to undertake it. The chemo I was on before the surgery was brutal. After my first round, I thought it was weird that I wasn't losing any hair. I hadn't lost any hair as a child during chemo, so I thought perhaps I was immune. Well, about two days later, there was no hair on my head or anywhere on my body. It got so bad that my fingernails were falling off.
I was also in this situation because of post-surgery radiation for my GBM as a child. The diagnosis was that I had radiation induced sarcoma. It can happen years down the road for GBM patients, but we weren't told about it at the time, because we didn't have years. To my doctors' credit, why would they tell us? If someone is given weeks to live, are you really planning for 15 years in the future?
I saw what the future side effects could be from the chemo and said I would rather risk a recurrence of osteosarcoma, than finish the chemo and potentially have a new cancer to worry about. Since then, I've been getting routine MRIs and check ups and I'm in remission. I'm cancer free. The only ailments I really have from that surgery are that the left side of my face is completely paralyzed. But if that's the worst I have to experience, it's nothing. And, it's kind of cool; I have a metal plate and my fibula as my jaw.
Interestingly enough, this tumor was also 100 percent encapsulated. Doctors believe this stems from the genetic mutation our family has, Lynch Syndrome. My mom's colon cancer and breast cancer tumors were both encapsulated and my brother's colon cancer tumor was also encapsulated.
I always tell people I had a bad situation with the best circumstances. It's true. If you think about the fact that I am 100 percent ambidextrous, all my tumors were encapsulated, I responded well to every single chemo and treatment and I also had incredible doctors and incredible support from friends, family, social workers, nurses and now organisations like the Glioblastoma Research Organization who have helped me to share my story. Because of a post they shared about me on social media, I have spoken to families battling GBM in the United Arab Emirates, India, Switzerland and Sweden. I've never left America, but I'm Mr. Worldwide right now!
A while ago, I was in touch with the surgeon who treated me for my GBM relapse at the age of 11. He told me that I am one of the longest surviving pediatric GBM patients in America. But I don't really think about that too much; it's just something that is part of me. I never let it hold me back and I would never let it define who I am. I think what actually defines me is the way I was able to deal with adversity. Not just the cancer itself, but everything else that comes with cancer. I missed out on some parts of life from the ages of 10 to 14 years old, but I was able to live those out later on.
I still work in sales for a medical device company and my territory is Miami, which is great. I drive there almost every single day, but it's nice to come back to Delray Beach where it's very quiet. I love it.
My experiences of cancer, especially the most recent one as an adult, have made me realize how strong I can be when I need to overcome adversity. When it matters, my default is positivity and optimism. Do I get down and upset, or lose my mind driving in Miami every day? Yes. But I know, when it really comes down to it, I'm a happy person who doesn't take life for granted.
I try to control my own destiny to the greatest degree that I can. I take life day by day and I'm so comfortable saying that I don't know what life will be like a year from now. I feel like, often, people wait around for others to get them going. You just have to go for it. Be optimistic, find things that make you happy and surround yourself with people who make you happy. You just have to live, that's the best advice I can give.
Being in remission now for nearly 3 years and coming up on my 20th year of survivorship, I have a ton to be grateful for. Having the opportunity to reach and inspire so many people is one the most meaningful aspects of life. There’s no way to describe the feeling of giving others hope in a time where they believed they were on a road of hopelessness. Cancer forced me to become resilient and strong at the age of 10. Without knowing it at the time, my journey with pediatric cancer shaped my entire outlook on life and how I handle adversity. It’s not to say I don’t have bad days, or hell, even a bad week at times. But I wholeheartedly believe that fighting cancer for the last 20 years has made it so I don’t dwell in those moments for long. I seek refuge in happiness, humor, and love. My world has never revolved around the fear of cancer, but rather how grateful I am to be able to live the life I have lived, even if it’s on “borrowed time” in the eyes of some of my past doctors. My optimism and positive outlook on life doesn’t come from blocking out all negativity and pretending that the world is all puppies and kittens, although that would be incredible. No, instead my attitude comes from knowing that whatever comes my way, be it cancer or other adversity, I will be a stronger and better version of myself on the other side of it. I knew going through cancer as an adult would be harder than it was as a child. I had different stresses, obligations, emotions, and there was no XBOX in the adult hospital. But I held on to the mindset that WHEN I come out of this, I will be a more complete version of myself. Every setback, every tear, and every bit of physical and emotional pain felt was just another layer of toughness, grit, and determination that I would have in my arsenal to apply to other challenges I will face in my life. Lightheartedness and optimism has always been my beacon in times of pain and uncertainty. The best advice I can give to anyone going through cancer or dealing with adversity, is learn to laugh in the dark and smile where it hurts. Courage can be found where you least expect it, but when you most need it.
David Fitting is a three-time cancer survivor and one of the longest surviving pediatric glioblastoma patients in America. He is an advocate and ambassador for the Glioblastoma Research Organization and lives in Delray Beach, Florida.
His story is featured in Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/terminal-brain-cancer-survivor-against-odds-1668722
Cancer made me a better husband, friend, and family member. It gave me the opportunity to dedicate my life to something truly meaningful.