I am thankful

Cancer survivors celebrate a special Thanksgiving

Written by Sara Garrison

Thanksgiving is a time to honor what we are most thankful for. This year, cancer survivors John Garrison, Chris McGill and Rob Fraser share their cancer journeys and how prayers, hope, love and survival make Thanksgiving so special.

John Garrison

In the summer of 2017, John Garrison was occasionally having trouble swallowing the food he ate. As the holidays approached, John’s condition worsened. Food was regularly getting stuck in his esophagus and it would not pass through to his stomach.

“In December I spoke with my son, Phil, about the symptoms I was having,” says John. “Phil contacted his friend, Dr. Nick Brown, who performed my endoscopy on Dec. 21.”

Then on Dec. 23, John received the call. He had esophageal cancer. “It hit me like a bucket of ice water, but my first thought was how quickly could we deal with this. I wanted to start treatment right away.”

On Jan. 2, Phil called his close friend and colleague, Jill Docking, who was able to connect him with a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Doctors at Mayo were able to see John at 9 a.m. the next morning, Jan. 3.

After arriving at Mayo and over the next few days, John underwent a multitude of diagnostic tests. The tests determined he had stage 3 esophageal cancer with a 4 mm mass directly above his stomach in his esophagus.

“At Mayo, the doctors looked Dad directly in the eyes and told him, ‘You are in for the fight of your life,’ ” explains Phil. “When we heard those words, the gravity of my Dad’s illness became so real.”

On Jan. 17, John had his first proton radiation treatment at Mayo. Over the next five weeks, John had proton radiation treatments five days a week, along with weekly chemotherapy to treat his cancer.

On April 3, Mayo doctors performed an extensive, eight-hour esophagectomy surgery. Following surgery John spent nine days in the hospital and additional time at home recovering. Today, seven months later, John is cancer free.

“When I was at the [Mayo] clinic doctors were very specific about this procedure being a cancer-curative procedure,” says John. “I knew if I got through the treatments and surgery that I would no longer have cancer. That made all of the difference for me.”

This Thanksgiving John is extremely thankful for his health. He is thankful for his daughter Lara Williams, son, Phil, and his entire family, friends and acquaintances who have prayed for him, sent him cards and given him so much support throughout his cancer journey. He is also especially grateful for his wife of 50 years, Beth.

“I can’t begin to tell you how much Beth means to me,” says John. “She has been there with me through every single step and every minute of this treatment. It was an experience we will never forget.”

Chris McGill

In 2014, as a financial advisor for Benjamin F. Edwards and father to children Zach, Cade, Nate and Mattie, Chris McGill was enjoying life.

That summer, during a routine checkup with his direct care physician, Chris had a blood test that came back abnormal. He then visited a local oncologist who also noticed abnormalities in his blood and recommended a bone marrow biopsy.

When the results came back, at 46 years old, Chris McGill was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

“Hearing you have a 20 percent chance of living stops you in your tracks and you think, ‘what do I do?’ ” says Chris McGill, cancer survivor. “After my diagnosis, I spoke with Angie Whiteman who was diagnosed with AML one year before me. She told me not to worry about the results because I can’t change them. The only things I need to worry about are my attitude and working hard.”

The day after he received the news of his diagnosis, Chris checked in to KU Medical Center. There he received one month of inpatient high dose chemotherapy to put his cancer into remission. This round of chemotherapy was unsuccessful.

“Although the first round of chemo did not put my cancer into remission, my doctor suggested we still continue on with the stem cell transplant,” says Chris. “We did another month of inpatient high dose chemo to kill off all of the healthy cells in my body to prepare for transplant.”

Chris is the youngest of 11 children in his family. Each of his siblings were tested and his oldest brother, Mike McGill, was his stem cell donor. On Dec. 8, 2014, Chris had his stem cell transplant.

Today, Chris is still enduring the effects of his cancer treatments. He has chronic graft versus host disease — a common complication of transplants — that is being managed. In September he had a hip replacement and he is set to have the other hip replaced in December.

Chris is an inspiration to all who know him. Through it all, he has had such a positive outlook and he is thankful for so much in his life.

“I have realized it is important to take joy in relationships, work at them and cherish them. We are all on this planet to be in relationships with each other and be there for each other. Put joy into the lives of your kids, family, friends and even the strangers you meet,” says Chris.

As Thanksgiving approaches, Chris explains, “I am thankful to have all of the people in my life that I have taken for granted for so long. I am so grateful for the support, prayers and help everyone has given me. Their support is amazing and I am incredibly humbled.”

Rob Fraser

Rob Fraser was an active and healthy individual who played hockey and refereed hockey games until age 75. The former executive administrator at Cessna and National-Spencer received routine colonoscopies every ten years, but annually he submitted at-home colon cancer screening tests via the mail.

In 2017, Rob picked up a free colon cancer screening FIT test offered through a partnership with Via Christi Ascension Health, American Cancer Society and Dillons at his local Dillons store.

“I wasn’t due for a colonoscopy until 2020, but every year I pick up a screening kit and send it in,” says Rob. “In 2017, my ‘poop’ test came back with blood in my sample.”

Rob then contacted his family physician with the results. His physician ordered a colonoscopy and during the colonoscopy in April 2017, doctors discovered a rectal polyp that was removed the following week. At 78 years of age, Rob Fraser was diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

Over the next five weeks Rob underwent 28 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments at the Cancer Center of Kansas.

“Originally as I was going through treatments, I didn’t see much change in how I felt,” says Fraser. “A few weeks later I noticed being low on energy. I didn’t feel like doing anything. My energy level was low and I did not have much pep.”

Rob credits the colon cancer screening test as the key factor in getting treatment.

“I am walking sandwich board for the screening tests,” Fraser explains. “By taking the at-home screening test, you have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. I didn’t think cancer would happen to me. But, I am so thankful for catching this cancer. If I would have waited until 2020 for a colonoscopy, who knows how advanced my cancer would be.”

Rob is thankful to his wife of 16 years, Carol, for helping him through his cancer journey.

“My wife is a tremendous support for me,” says Fraser. “When you have cancer, you need a good caregiver to help you through it. Someone you can to talk to and fall back on when things are going bad. You need someone to be right with you every day. “

This Thanksgiving, Fraser explains, ”I am so thankful for having caught this cancer. I am thankful to be healthy.”

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