The Resilience of Cancer Warriors
- David Fitting has been defying the odds since he was a 10. A three-time cancer survivor, he’s battled glioblastomas (GBM) twice and osteosarcoma once.
- Osteogenic sarcoma, also called osteosarcoma, is the most common type of cancer that starts in the bones, and a glioblastoma (GBM) is the most aggressive primary brain tumor.
- Fitting has never lost his optimism and strength despite the harrowing obstacles he’s overcome.
- Resilience is not an uncommon trait amongst cancer warriors. Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, says her cancer journey helped her uncover “some beautiful things: Wisdom. Love. Life purpose. Priorities.”
Florida resident David Fitting shares the complexities of his arduous cancer journey and the gratitude he feels for being cancer free today in a recently published piece for Newsweek.
Fitting’s Cancer JourneyRead More
“It came out of nowhere,” he wrote for Newsweek. “I was always active; I loved to skateboard, play football, and wrestle. But in April of 2003, at the age of 10, I began having headaches. These were the first headaches I had ever had in my life and they were so bad we thought they were migraines. At the time, we were moving house so we wondered if maybe I was allergic to all the cleaning products we were using.”
The headaches grew so severe that Fitting couldn’t even drink water without throwing up. He was also having “deja vu” episodes that would later prove to be epileptic seizures. On May 6, 2003, doctors finally figured out what was wrong after a CT scan revealed a brain tumor.
“Due to my age and where the tumor was, on my right temporal lobe, they wanted to make sure there would be no cognitive issues or physical disabilities as a result of surgery,” he wrote. “Doctors gave me a Wada test, which determines which side of your brain is responsible for language and memory. After that test, the neurosurgeon told me I was 100 percent ambidextrous. If anything happened to damage the right side of my brain, those skills could be picked up by the left side.”
After a successful surgery, the pathology report provided more details for Fitting’s diagnosis: he had grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme. Doctors also speculated he had about 16 weeks to nine months to live, based on previous observations, so he immediately began chemotherapy and 36 radiation treatments. Thankfully, he would survive, but, sadly, it would not mean the end of his cancer journey. Just a year after his first diagnosis, he relapsed.
“I knew a tumor was back prior to the MRI,” he wrote. “At the age of 11, I called my oncologist, Dr. Narayana Gowda at St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach, asking for my MRI to be moved forward, because I had started experiencing the episodes of deja vu again.”
Just like his first tumor surgery, the second went smoothly because the tumor had been completely encapsulated by surrounding tissue. But also like his first surgery, the prognosis was not good.
“What I didn’t know at the time was that I was released with no plan and no hope whatsoever,” he wrote. “I was given six weeks to live. The doctor told my mom that there was really nothing else they could do. They had tried the post-surgery protocol after my first surgery and it hadn’t worked as I had relapsed.”
But Fitting’s mother was not satisfied. Instead of accepting her son’s prognosis, she took him to a different doctor – pediatric neuro-oncologist Dr. Sridharan Gururangan.
“My mom consented for him to put me on an experimental protocol of a cocktail of chemotherapies that had not been used to treat brain cancer before, and the Pediatric Oncology Support Team (POST) is in West Palm Beach, which is where I had my chemotherapy administered at St. Mary’s Hospital, allowed me to get my intravenous chemo in their office, every Friday for two years,” he wrote. “I was surrounded by a group of people who weren’t going to give up on me and weren’t going to let me give up on myself.”
Fitting finished treatment in September 2006 and was eventually told he was in remission. He went on to live as ‘normally’ as possible and graduated high school and college and even got a job in sales. But cancer would strike again, this time in the form of osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, after an MRI showed he had a tumor “about the size of a baseball” in 2019.
“The diagnosis was that I had radiation induced sarcoma,” he explained. “It can happen years down the road for GBM patients, but we weren’t told about it at the time, because we didn’t have years. To my doctors’ credit, why would they tell us? If someone is given weeks to live, are you really planning for 15 years in the future?”
From there, he had 16 infusions of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor until surgeons could operate on it. Then, in February 12, 2020, they removed the tumor as well as part of his lower jaw since the tumor had encompassed his jaw and cheek muscle. They replaced his lower jaw with bone from his left fibula and surrounding muscle as well as a plate to reconstruct his face, but complications were aplenty. He developed a hematoma after surgery that burst his stitches. Just four hours after jaw surgery, he went back for another operation to “evacuate the hematoma.”
“I always tell people I would rather have two brain surgeries again than the surgery for osteosarcoma,” he wrote of his experience. “During the recovery from that surgery, I was in so much pain.”
It was recommended that he continue chemotherapy, but Fitting chose not to since his chemo prior to surgery was “brutal” and he didn’t want any future side effects from the treatments. Thankfully, all of his fighting has brought him to the “cancer free” status he holds onto today.
“Since then, I’ve been getting routine MRIs and check ups and I’m in remission,” he wrote. “The only ailments I really have from that surgery are that the left side of my face is completely paralyzed. But if that’s the worst I have to experience, it’s nothing. And, it’s kind of cool; I have a metal plate and my fibula as my jaw.”
Fitting has quite an inspiring outlook for someone who’s been through so much. He’s grateful for his response to various treatments and thankful for the doctors and support systems that’ve helped him get to where he is today – including the GBM relapse surgeon who told him he was “one of the longest surviving pediatric GBM patients in America.” He’s even an advocate and ambassador for the Glioblastoma Research Organization and taken the time to speak to families battling GBM in the United Arab Emirates, India, Switzerland and Sweden.
“My experiences of cancer, especially the most recent one as an adult, have made me realize how strong I can be when I need to overcome adversity,” he wrote. “When it matters, my default is positivity and optimism. Do I get down and upset, or lose my mind driving in Miami every day? Yes. But I know, when it really comes down to it, I’m a happy person who doesn’t take life for granted.”
Understanding Brain Cancer
Normal function of the brain and spinal cord can become difficult when a person has brain cancer. This is because a tumor can put pressure that is on or spreads into nearby normal tissue.
There are many different types of brain tumors. Some types of brain and spinal cord tumors are more likely to spread into nearby parts of the brain or spinal cord than others. Slow-growing tumors may be considered benign, but even these tumors can cause serious problems.
The type of brain tumor that Fitting had, for example, is called a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). It is the most aggressive primary brain tumor. But despite the aggressive nature of GBM, the top brain researcher in the U.S. and neuro-oncologist at Duke University Medical Center, Dr. Henry Friedman, tells SurvivorNet that, “You are not dead just because you’re diagnosed with a glioblastoma. So many people are told by their doctors or their institutions that they’re at, ‘I’m sorry, put your affairs in order and just move on.’”
This message of hope comes from the promise of future clinical trials like the one Dr. Friedman and his colleagues are conducting at The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center using the modified poliovirus.
“The modified poliovirus is used to treat this tumor, by injecting it directly into the tumor, through a catheter. It is designed to lyse the tumor and cause the tumor cells to basically break up,” Friedman previously told SurvivorNet. “I think that the modified poliovirus is going to be a game-changer in glioblastoma, but I should also say that its reach is now extending into melanoma, soon to bladder cancer.”
The term sarcoma is used to describe an array of more than 70 rare cancers that begin in the bones and the soft tissues, such as muscles. This diverse group of diseases accounts for only about one percent of tumors in adults and just over 10 percent of tumors in children.
The main symptom of sarcomas is generally a slow-growing, painless mass, but symptoms can be hard to detect as soft tissue sarcomas are typically painless and bone sarcomas can be mistakenly diagnosed as orthopedic injuries.
“Unfortunately, most sarcomas do not cause many of the symptoms that may be associated with other cancers,” Dr. Dale Shepard, director of the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute Phase I and Sarcoma Programs, tells SurvivorNet. “A mass the size of a golf ball or larger and growing should be evaluated as a potential sarcoma. It’s important that patients who do have symptoms are not dismissive of them.”
Types of Sarcoma Cancers
The word sarcoma refers to a large array of bone and soft tissue cancers, and individual cancers within that set go by unique names. Some of the types of sarcomas include:
- Ewing’s sarcoma is a cancer that typically occurs in and around the bones, often in the arms or legs, or the bones of the pelvis. It most commonly occurs in children and young adults.
- Kaposi sarcoma is a very rare type of cancer that causes lesions on the skin, in lymph nodes, organs, and the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat. It typically affects people with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV.
- Epithelioid sarcoma is a type of soft tissue cancer that grows slowly. It is likely to begin under the skin of areas like the finger, hand, forearm, lower part of the leg, or foot.
- Synovial sarcoma, also called malignant synovioma, is a cancer that can form soft tissues such as muscle or ligaments, commonly close to joints or in areas like the arm, leg, or foot.
- Osteogenic sarcoma, also called osteosarcoma, is the most common type of cancer that starts in the bones. This is the type of cancer Fitting had.
- Spindle cell sarcoma is very rare, comprising as little as 2 percent of all primary bone cancer cases. It can start in the bone, often in the arms, legs, and pelvis, and usually occurs in people over 40.
The Resilience of Cancer Warriors
At SurvivorNet, we get to share stories of resilience all the time because there’s no shortage of brave cancer warriors holding onto hope in the face of adversity.
“I think what actually defines me is the way I was able to deal with adversity,” Fitting wrote. “Not just the cancer itself, but everything else that comes with cancer. I missed out on some parts of life from the ages of 10 to 14 years old, but I was able to live those out later on.
“I try to control my own destiny to the greatest degree that I can. I take life day by day and I’m so comfortable saying that I don’t know what life will be like a year from now. I feel like, often, people wait around for others to get them going. You just have to go for it. Be optimistic, find things that make you happy and surround yourself with people who make you happy. You just have to live, that’s the best advice I can give.”
Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, is another resilient cancer survivor like Fitting. She was first diagnosed with colon cancer in high school and proceeded to beat the disease not once, but twice. Understandably so, Ripley-Burgess has had to work through a lot of complex emotions that came with her cancer journey. Even still, she’s always managed to look at life with a positive attitude.
“As I’ve worked through the complex emotions of cancer, I’ve uncovered some beautiful things: Wisdom. Love. Life purpose. Priorities,” she preiously told SurvivorNet. “I carry a very real sense that life is short, and I’m grateful to be living it! This has made me optimistic. Optimism doesn’t mean that fear, pain and division don’t exist – they do. Our world is full of negativity, judgment, and hate. Optimism means that I believe there’s always good to be found despite the bad, and this is what my life is centered around.”
She moves through life with a sense of purpose unique to someone who’s been faced with the darkest of times. Happily in remission today, she’s determined to, one day, leave the world better than she found it.
“We can choose to stay positive, treat others with respect and look for the light in spite of the darkness,” she said. “This type of attitude and behavior will lead to the kind of legacies I believe all of us hope to leave.”