When faced with the prospect of having only 6 months to live due to a rare form of insular thyroid cancer, 45 year old Rick Bray of Allentown, PA chose to become part of a cancer treatment clinical trial being held at Fox Chase Cancer Center in hopes of helping others.
In 2010, at 51 years old, Rick has become a member of the Fox Chase family, and continues to assist doctors and researchers with the task of creating effective cancer treatments for generations to come.
In 2004, Rick's wife Lori was tired of listening to his snoring and gasping for air in the middle of the night. She encouraged him to see a doctor. Rick had friends who were diagnosed with sleep apnea, and so he followed their lead and went for testing at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem.
The lump in his throat was not taken lightly.
During testing his doctor found a lump in his throat. While a needle biopsy of the mass did not reveal cancer, the subsequent removal of his right thyroid lobe indicated the presence of cancerous cells. Shortly before Christmas of 2004, his St. Luke's surgeons performed a 12-hour, total neck dissection which resulted in the removal of Rick's thyroid and 167 lymph nodes.
Because Rick's thyroid levels were elevated post-surgery, he was given a dose of radioactive iodine, which is designed to stabilize the thyroid. Unfortunately, Rick's numbers were still on the rise after the first dose, and a second dose was prescribed in the summer of 2005.
Running out of options, Rick's doctors recommended Fox Chase Cancer Center.
Several weeks after the second treatment, Rick's doctors delivered disconcerting news to Rick and Lori. There was nothing further that could be done for Rick at their facility. They recommended that he go to Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia to meet with specialists about his case.
St. Luke's provided Fox Chase doctors with all of Rick's medical records and test results. In November of 2005 Rick and his wife traveled to Fox Chase for an appointment, where they learned that all conventional options for the treatment of Rick's cancer had been exhausted and that in as little as 6 months the cancer would begin to take over his body.
A clinical trial would prove to be successful at extending Rick's life.
Rick learned about a clinical trial for a new anti-cancer treatment that was taking place at Fox Chase. After taking some time to process his diagnosis and to consider becoming part of the trial, Rick decided to participate. He understood that the trial might not save his life, but that his participation would surely help to save others.
Rick returned home and shared his prognosis with friends, family and co-workers. The outpouring of support for him, his wife and their 6 children (Rick and Lori each brought 2 children from their first marriages, and together they have 2 children), was overwhelming. In fact, Rick's co-workers at Primo Produce in Allentown pulled together and sent his family on an all-expense-paid week vacation to Disney World in February of 2006.
"The support from everyone around us was incredible," said Rick. "With 6 children, 2 of which were only 1 and 3 at the time, the prospect of not being around to help Lori or to see them grow up, was tough. But at the same time, both Lori and I felt that I should hop into the clinical trial so that I could potentially help save someone else's life. For me, the clinical trial was giving me a way to turn my negative situation into a positive outcome for my children or for someone else's children."
Rick refers to his Fox Chase team as his "personal cancer crew who are the best people in the world."
In March 2010, Rick marked his 4-year anniversary of the beginning of his participation in the clinical trial. Since 2006, Rick has been working with a group that he refers to as his "personal cancer crew." Rick makes a monthly trip to Fox Chase to visit who he calls "the best people in the world."
He is thankful for his protocol nurses, Judy and Charlotte, and his physician assistant, Beth Gilbert. "It's as if each one of these individuals was made for their jobs," said Rick. "They are strong and straightforward when they need to be, and caring and compassionate always. I love seeing them every month. I know they are going to support me for the rest of my life, and I can't think of any other group I'd want to take care of me."
"I know it's crazy to say, but I don't even feel like I have cancer."
"I know it's crazy to say," Rick continued, "but most days I don't even feel like I have cancer. I'm really only reminded when I visit Fox Chase once a month. And even then, with each visit I feel a real boost in both my mind and body. I almost get a natural high from seeing everyone and I seem to somehow be energized for several days after every visit. And then I slowly settle back into my normal state of mind that has me focusing on everyday stuff like family, work, and friends."
Rick said the best advice he received from the professionals at Fox Chase Cancer Center was to let them worry about his cancer while he continued to live his life.
And that's exactly what Rick does. More than 5 years after being told he had 5 months to live, Rick takes every day as it comes. He reported that he is a much calmer person and no longer over-reacts to trivial things like drivers cutting him off, or kids breaking things around the house. "When you face your own mortality, your whole world changes. You start to see that there are very few things that happen that are truly that bad. And, in turn, you start to notice and savor the little things, like watching your kids on Christmas morning."
"If what I'm doing [on a clinical trial] helps to save just one person's life, I'll be thankful."
Rick's experience with his clinical trial has made him an advocate for the clinical trial process. "I consider my longevity a bonus," says Rick. "Something positive is happening here. It makes me feel fantastic that through my fight I am helping others. If what I'm doing helps to save just one person's life, I'll be thankful. Thanks to the doctors at Fox Chase I really feel like I am doing my part to help someone else, and that makes me happy."