By Alan Gionet
BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – Soon after he got his cancer diagnosis, George Keays sat down to write a note to friends. “Life isn’t meant to be fair,” he wrote. “It’s meant to be lived.” And so George went at it, trying to figure out a way to win his battle.
He had seen cancer before. His wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1998. It was a fatal diagnosis, but with research and perseverance, she survived until 2001, when he lost her not from cancer, but from an infection after surgery.
“You never give up hope,” said George. “It’s the strongest arrow in your quiver.”
George Keays is not the kind of guy to sit around. He was a longtime VP with Qwest. These days he’s selling real estate, which helps him have a flexible schedule. He runs, including a marathon. He meditates. He does yoga. All of that helped him in different ways. The cancer diagnosis came at age 64 in July of 2015.
At his annual exam, his doctor told him his numbers were so good he could live to see 100.
“But we need to get rid of that cough,” he remembers his doctor saying. It was a nagging thing, probably some kind of allergy, they figured. There was chest x-ray equipment in the building and they had a look.
George was driving away when the doctor called.
“He said, ‘get back in here right away.’”
It was a lung cancer called non-small cell adenocarcinoma. It was in his lymph nodes. There was also a brain tumor.
“I could see where the end of this was going,” said George. The five year survival rate is grim. His oncologist told him if he were able to beat it back with treatments, “It’s not a question of if cancer will come back, it’s a question of when.”
Some of the treatment got very rough. Radiation did some good. A tumor near his esophagus made eating hard. He lost 30 pounds.
“I was in a terrible amount of pain.”
Doctors punctured a bile duct during one probe causing new problems. He was on fentanyl and morphine to try to deaden the pain. But he didn’t want to be. He pulled a pain patch off and went without. Gutting out severe pain for weeks. But as some of the treatments began to take hold, he began to push himself. He started walking, dragging an oxygen tank. Then swimming a little and running a little. George was not one to let cancer and the treatments run his life.
“I will say I pushed my lungs and got success out of that.” He had been a yoga teacher at the University of Colorado Rec Center for over 10 years. He went at it. Meditation took his mind to a different place.
“Meditation is the absence of thought. You just kind of have to take your mind out of gear for a while.”
Cancer he found also was a bit of a gift.
“I got to see the love of friends and family. That’s extraordinary.. a gift.”
Through his strength and his treatments, including radiation on his brain, the tumors were knocked down. But as the doctor told him, it would be back.
“I had no real evidence of tumors, but have had some microscopic stuff going on in the blood.”
He looked around and found a study going on in Cuba. A unique immunotherapy held some hope. At first he was set to go in September. Hurricane Irma hit. Then October and another storm ripped across the Caribbean. Finally on October 24, he made it to a clinic in Cuba.
“The Cuban people are wonderful, their medical system is off the charts. I was very impressed,” said George. The treatment goes after a protein always associated with a cancer cell’s development. The human body has a tough time recognizing the protein. A monoclonal antibody attaches to it and in theory, makes it recognizable so the immune system can go to work.
“It doesn’t kill cancer but prevents it from forming a tumor,” said George. George brought his own does back. He’s been giving himself injections. But next year it will run out.
The next challenge could be political. The Trump Administration is dialing back the opening with Cuba created during the Obama Administration.
“I am working on a study of new travel regulations,” George said.
He says he’ll go through Mexico if needed.
“You do what you have to do.”
Cancer picked George, but he has found ways to fight back. Friends, family, drive, inner strength. That’s an anti-cancer medicine as powerful as disease. He has scans coming up in December and hopes for good news.
He won’t leave it alone. “With every adversity, whether it’s cancer or whatever,” he told me, “There are openings. It may not be better than what you had before, but hope is the strongest thing. Don’t ever give up.”
Alan Gionet is telling the stories of Coloradans with cancer as he raises money and awareness during No Shave November. Here is his donation page: no-shave.org/member/agionet