Cancer made me realize that I am not invincible, and that you only live once. Nobody knows when their last day is, so make those memories for yourself and your loved ones.
My name is Greg Cantwell. I was born in Dusseldorf, Germany where I lived for the first 12 years of my life. Then moved to the States where we moved around for a few years then settled down in Potomac, Maryland. After high school I moved to Colorado for college and it was there I landed the job I had been dreaming about since I was a young boy: working in the airline industry. I moved around quite a bit again and moved my way up in the industry which took me to California, Colorado, Virginia, Hawaii, Alaska and then to Minnesota where my story starts.
I was 30 years old living in Hawaii with no health issues when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was strong and in good mental and physical condition. On October 28, 2004, my plane had just arrived in Minneapolis, where I would begin my new job with Northwest Airlines. I checked into my hotel, went out to eat and went to bed for what I thought would be a good night sleep.
At approximately 11:15pm (from what I was told), I awoke, experiencing a grand mal seizure. I couldn't talk, was barely able to breathe, and was conscious but very confused. I was rushed to the emergency room where the doctors asked me all sorts of questions. The questions were “easy” and I knew I knew the answers, but could not come up with them. I was scared. Why could I not answer these easy questions, but everyone else could? I was given a CT scan and next an MRI. Then they said the doctor was calling in a Neurologist from home. I thought to myself, “Why?” “This can't be that serious, or can it?”
The Neurologist finally arrived and delivered the news no one wants to hear: "Greg you have a brain tumor." Two days later I returned for a biopsy of the tumor. A few days after that, the results were in: it was a stage IV Glioblastoma. I could tell in the Neurologist’s eyes and tone of voice that the chances I would survive were extremely slim. I thought to myself, “did I hear him right? I have a brain tumor? Why me?”
That was the only time I ever felt sorry for myself. From that point on I was positive and knew I was going to beat this cancer no matter what the statistics or doctors said. My son was one year old at the time. I thought to myself, “I have to be here for him.” I want to see him go to school on his first day, play sports, have his first girlfriend, graduate from high school, and get married. I have to be here for all of that and I am not going to die!” I buckled down for the fight of my life.
I met with my Oncologist, who explained I had a 5% chance of surviving one year. He gave me three options for treatment: 1) Have surgery but do nothing to aggressively fight the cancer and enjoy the limited time I had left with minimal medical intervention. 2) Have surgery, do minimal radiation and chemotherapy to hopefully extend my life a year or two. 3) Have surgery and go all out to fight this cancer with everything that medicine had to offer. This option would make me the sickest, require many different treatments but would hopefully give me the best chance of long-term survival.
Given this information, I had a lot to think about. On the positive side, I was strong both mentally and physically and had the will to want to beat this. I decided that I would take option three and was scheduled for surgery two weeks later.
I was scared. I had never had any type of surgery before and now I was having a craniotomy. I had no clue what to expect. What would it feel like falling asleep? Would I have complications during surgery? How would I feel when I wake up? Would I remember anything? All of these questions and uncertainties!
The big day finally arrived. Scared and with tears in my eyes, my parents and friends said that they would see me when I got out of surgery and I was wheeled down the hallway. I don't remember even getting to the operating room. I was told afterwards that the neurosurgeon told my family and friends that he didn't know what to expect; meaning, would I be able to talk? Feed myself? Walk?
I woke up in ICU and was told that the surgery lasted five hours. The Neurosurgeon came in and explained the procedure. He implanted five Gliadel Wafers into the resected tumor site to release direct chemotherapy over a period of time. After a brief recovery from the surgery, I went through six weeks of radiation in combination with Temodar, an oral chemotherapy drug. After I completed the radiation therapy, I had a couple weeks to rest up before starting my regular chemotherapy regime. Over the next 12 months I went into the hospital for three consecutive nights each month where I would receive two types of chemotherapy back-to-back: Cytoxin and Etoposide, then a rest period, then the same chemotherapy back-to-back again.
The day before my release from the hospital I went to Interventional Radiology where a catheter was threaded from the artery in my groin up to my brain to release Carboplatin, another chemotherapy drug. This procedure was risky as well (chance of blood clot, infection, or stroke) but I knew it would increase my chances of long-term survival.
For the next twelve months family members took turns flying in and staying two weeks at a time to take care of me. After my twelve chemo sessions I was put on a “watch-and-see” status. Textbooks and statistics showed a 100% chance the tumor would grow back. Thank God, to this day, it hasn't. Currently I have MRI's once a year and they have been clear. It has been 13 years since my diagnosis. I have defied the odds.
I sincerely believe that in addition to the normal treatment for a Glioblastoma which I received, having a positive attitude throughout my entire treatment, the power above, and the care I received from my entire medical team (including my proactive Neuro-Oncologist and Neurosurgeon implanting 5 Glialdel Waffers into my brain from the start) is why I am here today.
As I think back over the years prior to my diagnosis I remember having migraines which started in high school. They would only happen 2 or 3 times a year but were extremely severe. I could tell they were coming on because my tongue would go numb, then starting with my finger tips would go numb then all the way up my arms. My sight would then go blurry and I would become affected by the light. In order to feel a little better I would take a hot bath but then become sea sick and begin vomiting. I went to the doctor a number of times and explained the symptoms and was prescribed Imitrex. Could this have been the start of the tumor? No one knows, even the Neurosurgeon didn’t know how long the tumor had been there.
I got remarried in June of 2009 to a wonderful woman who has first-hand experience dealing with a terminal illness. We have a unique bond and take care of each other in addition to taking care of my 19-year-old son.
It has been 13 years since my diagnosis. My scans have showed no new tumor activity. I have dedicated my life to helping and educating those going through cancer or caring for someone going through cancer. There is so much that a person like myself can do to help. I volunteer at a number Cancer centers throughout the United States. These cancer centers and foundations include Cleveland Clinic, MD Anderson, Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation, National Brain Tumor Society and Imerman Angels. I started my own website 8 years ago www.survivorandcaregiver.com which has received over 100,000 hits from as far away as Africa. More recently I have founded my own nonprofit called Greg’s Mission the website is www.gregsmission.org my nonprofit focuses on Patient Navigation providing support, HOPE, education, current resources and awareness to patients suffering from brain tumors, their families and caregivers especially Glioblastoma Multiforme (a grade IV primary brain tumor) via phone, email, Skype and personal visits. I invite you all to take a look at it and forward it on to anyone you know.
I have provided support to over 7,800 people around the globe. I also travel around the country and world attending conferences and speaking about my experiences with this devastating disease. It is my goal that everyone will have the opportunity that I didn’t and that is to have the chance to talk to a survivor. Someone who has been given the diagnosis, told the statistics, had a craniotomy, radiation and chemotherapy keeping in mind that everyone is different and not everyone has the same reaction or side effects or outcome.
My goal now is to get a position within a hospital or hospital system where I can be an integral part of the patient care by providing hope, strength, positivity, and support from the very beginning. To be given a terminal diagnosis in general is overwhelming and to have someone like myself in the room to support the patient and the family during the most horrific time in their life would be invaluable. I know it would have been for me. To have someone look me in the eyes that can honestly say "I understand what you are going through, I know what it feels like to be given a terminal diagnosis, I have been there" would have been incredible.
Cancer showed me that my time is precious, that my relationships are precious, that my life is precious, and that I need to protect my energy at all costs. I’ve found a new purpose and am now focused on the things that matter most.
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.