In 1992 at the age of 48, I became a cancer statistic. I was diagnosed with throat cancer. A series of treatments and surgeries followed. I had a malignant node removed, half of my larynx removed, radiation treatments, and a total laryngectomy only to be told I had six months to live. I began another series of surgeries that removed the front, right side, and part of the left side of my neck. A portion of my small intestine was transplanted to form my esophagus. Muscle from my chest and skin from my leg completed the procedure. The small intestine transplant was rejected and a tube was then inserted in its place. Another tube was placed in my stomach to provide an opening to insert nourishment and medication for the thirteen months I could not eat. I was placed in rehabilitation for three months to regain my strength for the next surgery. This surgery involved pulling my stomach up to attach to the back of my throat to form a new esophagus. My desire to be a cancer survivor shows my stamina and determination to be a living statistic.
Since the age of fourteen, I developed a two pack a day smoking habit that continued for the next thirty-four years. It rendered me a life that requires the inserting of a two foot tube down my throat every morning to dilate the opening so I am able to eat and drink throughout the day. I cannot bend or lie flat to sleep because the sphincter muscle has been removed leaving a direct opening to the stomach. I cannot breathe or talk through my nose or mouth. A tracheostomy, a hole in my neck, allows me to breathe and a mechanical device allows me to communicate. I will take medication for the rest of my life. Despite these hardships, I have been cancer free since April 1993, and I am thankful for each day as a cancer survivor.
As a result of my own battle with cancer, I am committed to the fight against smoking. When I started smoking as a teenager, this was not the picture of the life I thought I would be living someday. I have overcome many physical obstacles and have chosen to take the knowledge I have learned from my experiences to educate young people to make the right choice and to encourage adults to quit smoking. I want to empower young people to be critical thinkers even when the advertising media bombards them with the values of smoking. I want young people to be fearful of smoking so that they will be able to resist peer and societal pressure to get involved with tobacco products.
My fight against smoking has taken me into schools, colleges, churches, youth organizations, public forums, medical schools, and corporations to speak with people about my experience. I documented the course of my illness with graphic pictures of my surgeries and treatment. I desired that the pictures taken would be used to demonstrate the horrors of my cancer treatment and the price I paid for my decisions. I am thankful that I was given a second chance at life to not only show the pictures, but to narrate the story. My presentation includes facts and statistics that challenge young people to think about their choices. I relate the story of how I began and the pressure I faced, with the pressures they face as teenagers. I share with them that in my group of five high school friends, three had cancer, and I am the only survivor. My effectiveness has been demonstrated in letters from students, teachers, and parents. In these letters, are testimonials from students who have quit smoking as a result of my presentation and students who have taken the information to family and friends who smoke. The opportunities for presenting my story increase annually. I have many new and repeat requests to tell my story.
My time and energy is devoted to speaking to young people, but I am also active in the lives of cancer patients. I bring them hope for recovery, the compassion to help them endure the treatment, and the encouragement to live life to the fullest. I volunteer with the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, Tobacco Free Missouri – St. Louis Coalition, the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Healthy Communities – St. Charles County and other organizations that work against tobacco and drug use. I also enjoy working with young people in sports, at church, at Children’s Hospital, and performing as a Shriner’s Clown. Now I have taken on new purpose. I am able to make a difference in the lives of young people and their families. As a cancer survivor, I feel compelled to take my story to the youth of our nation.
Brian Robertson said:
Don was a spiritual mentor and coach throughout my teenage years. The lessons he taught me through his teachings and simply the way he lived his life are still influencing my life to this day. Thanks Don!