Nemesis in defeatPublished 9:24pm Thursday, February 2, 2012
Hope and humor help Dana Daniels defy the poor prognosis cancer dealt him three times.
Not only did he survive a bone marrow transplant, but the nine-year Niles school board member and brother of Dowagiac Union Schools maintenance supervisor, Dave Daniels, since endured skin and prostate cancer.
Six words he most hates hearing from a doctor are, “I like you. You’re a challenge. I get that a lot.”
When cancer first darkened the Daniels’ doorstep, their daughter, Heather, was a baby. Now, she’s 19 and playing softball for Lake Michigan College.
Heather unwittingly helped when her parents faltered: Her immediate needs were a welcome distraction.
As Dana’s wife, Barb, said Tuesday night when they spoke at the Relay for Life kickoff for July 21 at Union High School Athletic and Physical Education CompleX (APEX) at Dowagiac Moose Lodge 944, “Dana tells the Grim Reaper side. I remember the day he called me from the doctor’s office. ‘They just told me I have cancer.’ What do you say to that? The thing that strikes me the most was when he said to the doctor, ‘Doc, you just told me I’m a dead man,’ and the doctor said, ‘No, I just told you you have cancer. There’s a difference.’
‘When I got scared, he was strong’
“That’s what I call hope,” Barb said. “That’s what this is all about. Having a 10-month-old daughter was the best thing for us because she didn’t care if you puked in a bucket. She just wanted her pants changed and to be fed now. Normal to us was the family getting together and giving him shots in the butt.
“One backfired. To have a little fun with the doctor, I drew a target on his rear end. The doctor pulled his pants down, started laughing and called everyone in to look. You have to keep hope and your sense of humor. Trust me when I say you don’t know how you get through it except to put one foot in front of another and keep going because if you sat down and thought about it, you’d just cry. When I got scared, he was strong” and vice versa.
Daniels was diagnosed in June 1993 with a terminal form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and “informed I had three to five years to live.”
If there was any silver lining it was that he was 35 and the average age to contract that disease was 66, so Daniels could tolerate treatment that might kill an older man.
“Dr. Ansari said he was going to make me sick for six months, but it might cure me,” Daniels said. “I went through eight rounds of chemotherapy. My platelets, which keep you from bleeding to death, hit 3,000. I was told not to bump my head or I would have a stroke. I got into remission, and the best physical shape I had ever been in as an adult to try to survive by boosting my immune system with exercise.”
But cancer came back 18 months later.
“I was then put on a chemotherapy regimen that was absolutely horrible. Eight hours, five days straight. Sick after the first hour. By the fifth day they shot me up with morphine and let me lay there. I ended up in the hospital and getting platelet and blood transfusions each time. I went through three cycles of that. It didn’t put me in remission, but knocked the cancer back.”
They traveled to Nebraska with their toddler to explore clinical trials.
“They told me I didn’t qualify for experimental treatment,” he said. “That’s a bad situation to be in. I went through another cycle, which almost killed me. During that whole period, we figured 15 units of red blood cells and about 30 transfusions of platelets to keep me alive. About spring of 1996, Dr. Ansari asked me if I had any relatives,” but he and his brother, Dave, didn’t match for a bone marrow transplant.
“We went to the National Registry,” Daniels said. “I had 222 perfect matches. Typically, five is good, and you are very, very lucky; 222 was the second-highest IU had ever seen. They matched me with a donor. My odds of survival were 50 percent to walk out of the hospital, 50-50 to survive the first year if I walk out. If you do survive the first year, it’s with an 80 percent chance you’re chronically disabled. I’m not.”
‘It felt like a red-hot knife in my jaw’
In preparation for the transplant, his immune system was wiped out, and he was told that the first time he flew on an airplane to expect shingles, or chickenpox.
“They were right,” Daniels said. “Post-traumatic neurologia was probably the worst experience I had. It felt like a red-hot knife put in my jaw, and then I was on my knees. The guy kept giving me shots and couldn’t control it. We almost went to the hospital because the amount of medicine would stop my breathing — at which point, adrenaline kicked in and the pain went away. The other thing I went through, which I didn’t expect, was I had no saliva right after the transplant.”
Most disturbing for a guy who had never had a cavity or been drilled by a dentist in 40 years, when he had four wisdom teeth pulled, three shattered.
A mouth reconstructionist in Kalamazoo felt he could save two of Daniels’ teeth.
“It cost me $45. Insurance is a great thing, by the way,” said Daniels after nine appointments over 12 months and 28 crowns.
“A bone marrow transplant is the most anti-climactic piece of medicine I’ve ever been involved with.”
He went through 11 lethal full-body radiation treatments and four days of lethal chemotherapy. After eight days, he had a day to rest, “which really means they’re flushing your system. I had a port they could insert three IVs at a time. The nurse unscrewed it, screwed in a syringe and some saline and it was done. The doctor said, ‘It knows where to go in the bloodstream, I guess.’ Four of us went through the transplant together.”
One died within six months. Another died a year later of a virus unrelated to cancer. Daniels lost contact with the third.
Coming close purely by accident
Coincidence played a part. Bone marrow donors are not identified for at least a year. His transplant happened Sept. 18, 1996. Dana and Barb decided to travel to California the following year to visit her best friend.
“We get a call in October 1997 from the National Registry that the name has been released. Lo and behold, the ZIP code is one digit off where we’re going and the area code is the same. It’s 30 miles away. We were in Seaside on Saturday at an Embassy Suites. We call him up to meet and, when we tell him, he says he hurt his hand at work and has to come to the doctor on Monday. ‘It’s two blocks from where you’re at.’ ”
Since then, Daniels overcame skin and prostate cancers.
“With my sick sense of humor, that was hilarious to me,” he said of the latter cancer. “The doctor was very serious, then a physician’s assistant and a psychologist come in to take you through all the steps. Folks, you’re wasting your time here. I wasn’t in denial. They gave me 14 different options of how I can survive. Last time, they said I was dead. Since then, it’s been fairly smooth sailing.”
Relay and the American Cancer Society equate defeating their nemesis to “more birthdays.”
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