Vol. LXI, No. 36
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
In October 2005, Princeton resident Jimmy Fang had a headache that changed the rest of his life.
Then in his senior year at Rutgers University and looking forward to graduating with a computer science degree, Mr. Wang had no history of headaches or any other ailment for that matter. So his first response was to take an over-the-counter pain relief medicine. But when the headaches became so excruciating that he was unable to study, he headed for the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital Emergency Room in New Brunswick.
There, a tumor the size of a small clementine was discovered in the left frontal lobe of Mr. Fang's brain. "This was my first visit to a hospital," recalled Mr. Fang who was stunned by the news. He called his partner Debbie Persaud. "I just couldn't understand how going to the emergency room for a stronger pain killer for my headache could result in the hospital staff wanting to remove a part of my brain."
A graduate student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ on the Newark campus specializing in thrombosis research in the department of surgery, Ms. Persaud hurried to the hospital.
Next day, Mr. Fang underwent his first left frontal lobe craniotomy.
At the time, Mr. Fang recalled, he was more confused than afraid, wondering how in the world such a thing could happen to him.
A Sergeant and Civil Affairs Specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve (353D Civil Affair Command) from 1994 until 2000, Mr. Fang was World Wide Civil Affairs Soldier of the Year 1997 for his work in improving US/NATO and Hungary relations during Operation Joint Endeavor. He was used to leading a healthy lifestyle. "I exercise daily, drink plenty of water, and eat all my vegetables. I never smoked cigarettes or abused alcohol. I was the poster boy for Good Health. So how could I have a brain tumor and not know about it?"
This first tumor an anaplastic ganglioglioma he was told, was "encapsulated" and successfully removed. He was up and about right after surgery, and released after only three days in the hospital. He scheduled a follow up MRI in three-months and, having missed valuable time for study, he rushed back to classes, took his exams, and continued weekly tennis lessons, playing singles in a 3.0 USTA league.
"A week before my 3-month post surgical MRI, the headaches returned," said Mr. Fang, whose second trip to the hospital revealed that the tumor had grown back again in the left frontal lobe at the same site. A second craniotomy followed three days later, followed by 42 days of chemotherapy and 30 days of radiation treatment for a grade IV GBM (glioblastoma multiforme) tumor.
After his second craniotomy in February 2006, Mr. Fang learned that a portion of tumor near the occipital lobe could not be removed. He received a prognosis of less than 3 months.
"After 18 months, I am still here!" said Mr. Fang who reports that so far "I am not just surviving but thriving."
He completed his degree requirements and graduated in May 2006. "I am not dying of brain cancer but living with brain cancer."
According to Mr. Fang, the difference is not just a matter of words. "Whether you have 50 years, 5 years, 5 days, 5 hours, or 5 minutes, you need to live your best life," he said. "Time is irrelevant. Life is important and I focus on living my best life every day."
Born in Zhejiang, China, where his grandmother still lives, Mr. Fang was just 11 years old when he came to the United States from China with his family in 1985. A United States citizen since 1992, he graduated from Metuchen High School and Rutgers University. He is the first of his immediate family to have graduated from high school and from college.
Although the prognosis weighs heavily on his mind at times, Mr. Fang believes that "Attitude determines Altitude in Life!"
His research discovered that mean survival after a GBM grade IV diagnosis is six to ten months, with less than a 10 percent survival rate after two years. "I will never stop believing that I am the one who will prove the statistics wrong," he said. "Someone has to and why not me?"
Although he still receives chemotherapy every month, Mr. Fang has not allowed brain cancer to curtail his active lifestyle. A member of the Central N.J. Brain Tumor Support Group, he raised over $4,000 in the "Have a Chance Walk to Fight Brain Tumors" in New York City last October. Together with friends and family, he plans to take part again this year.
"Whether I feel good or not I still work out at the gym every day. I know that the chemotherapy is extending my life, and I have to put in the work to build up my immunity to fight the remaining cancer cells that the drug does not kill."
Mr. Fang is quick to give credit to those who have offered him their support, especially his partner Ms. Persaud. "Without Debbie I would not be here," he said. "When you are diagnosed with any terminal illness your family becomes a corporation drowning in paperwork," said Mr. Fang wryly. "Debbie has an endless amount of love, commitment, energy, and compassion."
She handles medical appointments, chemotherapy, and MRI scheduling, health-related finances, insurance claims, training schedule for the marathon and more, he said.
He contacted the Lance ArmStrong Foundation (LAF) to ask if he would be allowed to run in the New York City marathon even though he was still receiving monthly chemotherapy treatments and had never run in a marathon before. To his delight, not only was he allowed to participate, but the LAF invited him to run in this year's New York City marathon as a part of the LiveStrong Army.
"My goal is to complete the marathon in less than 5 hours," said Mr. Fang. "I am running in honor of members of the Brain Tumor families who have lost their range of movement due to brain cancer, carrying their courage and strength in my heart as I cross the finish line.
"I want to show the world that you can live a full life and have brain cancer. I want decision-makers to be aware that we need more comprehensive insurance coverage despite 'pre-existing conditions,' and we need more drug options in the pipeline for 'terminal diseases.'"
Over the Labor Day weekend, Mr. Fang traveled to Atlanta to run in U.S. 10K Classic 2007 in preparation for his participation in the ING New York City Marathon, Sunday, November 4.
According to the Brain Tumor Society, more than 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a primary or metastatic brain tumor. While there is no known cause, research is helping those battling the condition to improve their quality of life.
"Even though methods of diagnosing brain cancer have improved, life expectancy and quality of life for GBM patients has not significantly increased in the last 20 years," said Mr. Fang.
"A lot of work needs to be done and I still plan on being around to make sure that these improvements are made," said Mr. Fang.
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