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Marathon Man

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Dave Massey brings a message of hope to those with cancer

On February 1, River Ridge native Dave Massey will run the New Orleans Mardi Gras Marathon for the second time. Last year was his first, and in November 2008 he again traveled to the city from his present home in California to run the seventh annual Run Through History 5K.

While not an athlete in the typical sense, these are amazing feats. The fact that Massey runs is an amazing feat. After all, 22 years ago doctors wanted to amputate his legs.

In 1986, when Massey was 29 years old and still living in Louisiana, he was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive form of cancer. Doctors found a mixed germ cell tumor in his hip that had spread to both legs. They believed the removal of his legs at the hip was the only thing to do, yet they still only gave him six months to live. Unwilling to accept this stark forecast, Massey found another doctor and after months of intense chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he was deemed cancer-free. He suffered nerve damage from the treatments that left him without feeling on the surface of his hands, arms, legs or feet, and it would be 11 years before Massey learned to walk again.

Then in 1997 doctors found another type of germ cell tumor in his chest cavity. More grueling chemo and radiation followed before the tumor, his left lung and the sac around his heart were surgically removed. It’s been an arduous road to healing, but this two-time cancer survivor is an inspiration for his positive outlook and his commitment to helping others. Massey and his wife, Karen, a survivor of childhood leukemia, started a 501c3 nonprofit called A Good Day, with the mission to help others attain “healthy and happy cancer survivorship.” He and Karen work together to create programs for cancer survivors: They travel the country sharing their stories and lending encouragement to survivors and their families; Dave published a book titled A Good Day Anyway, full of uplifting poetry about coping with cancer written during his own recovery; and he runs marathons to raise money for A Good Day.

Why did doctors want to remove your legs? And what went through your mind when they suggested that?
[The cancer] was spreading fast and [my oncologist at the time] wanted to stop it from moving into other parts of my body. Without the amputations, he predicted that I wouldn’t live much more than six weeks. I had a 9-month-old daughter, and I was determined to be there for her growing up. I never believed I would die. I had grown up with my mom always telling me “no matter how bad things seem to be, they always work out.”

What role did East Jefferson General Hospital play in your treatment?
I went to Dr. Jayne Gurtler at EJGH for a second opinion. She didn’t know what type of cancer I had or how to treat it, but she started looking for someone that did. She sent me to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston … I would be in the hospital in Houston while I took chemotherapy and then go home for a short stay until my blood count started to drop. While I was home I would visit EJGH often for blood work and other tests and see Dr. Gurtler to make sure I was okay.

Tell us more about your determination to walk again.
I could move myself on crutches, and I was afraid that if I got in the wheelchair I would never get out. When I learned I had cancer the second time, I immediately set the goal of walking two miles a day. Sometimes it took a really long time, and I didn’t always make it. But I always tried.

What was it like running your first marathon in February 2008.
I promised my physical therapist that I would continue physical rehab by joining a gym and exercising at least three times a week. [I] made health, nutrition and fitness a top priority in my life. My wife [at the time] was not on board with the changes, and we divorced. Five years later, I met the most wonderful person that I have ever known. Karen has been a runner since school and [she] challenged me to run a 10K. Running was very difficult for me with just one lung. She said that didn’t matter. I just needed to train properly and be patient. I was able to run my first 10K at the Crescent City Classic. I was slow but I finished! Then Karen decided to run a marathon. [My doc] gave the okay. I continued training and finished last year’s Mardi Gras Marathon!

What inspires you to want to help others?
A Good Day came to be through an evolution that began during my second battle with cancer. I was away from home, alone and taking treatment. My daughter, Amber was 11 years old. Trish, the nurse, suggested I write my daughter a poem as a gift. I retorted something to the effect that I was a man and didn’t write poems. She put her hands on her hips and scolded me. “What do you have to do besides lie in that bed and be sick?” Trish was right! I found myself writing poems about everything I experienced in the hospital and as an outpatient. I began visiting cancer centers, giving survivors copies of my book, sharing my positive story [and] became aware of areas that cancer survivorship programs could use additional resources. I remember when I was first told I had cancer, and Dr. Doom-and-Gloom’s plan to cut off both legs, and his prediction that I probably wouldn’t live six months. I also remember Dr. Jayne Gurtler saying she believed we could save my legs and that I had a chance to beat it. That hope and encouragement made a difference in my life!

Don’t Wait

Everyone should have cancer once.
It makes everything else seem easy.
You’ll forget in a hurry
Your everyday worry
If tomorrow’s the last day you might see.

But I could never wish such a terrible thing?.
For anyone, friend or foe.
Please listen to me
You don’t want to be
The one that didn’t know.

You can only live once.
Just one chance to be great.
So make every day
Special some way.
Don’t wait until it’s too late!

To learn more about Dave Massey and A Good Day, visit www.agoodday.org or www.agooddayanyway.com.