In April of 2016, Dan had what he thought was sinusitis. After two rounds of antibiotics, his symptoms weren’t improving. On top of that, he was losing weight and feeling weak.
His primary care physician Farouk Khairy, an MD at Community Health Network, ordered a chest x-ray. Two hours later he called Dan asking him to come in to his office. When Dan arrived, he learned the x-ray indicated cancer and that his doctor had already spoken to Anuj Agarwala, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network® certified physician practicing medical oncology at Community Health Network.
Dan’s physician helped him make an appointment with Dr. Agarwala the very next day. There, he learned definitively that he had lung cancer, eventually deemed Stage III. The initial oncology appointment was followed by a colonoscopy and upper gastrointestinal scan—all mere days after Dan’s diagnosis—to determine if the cancer had spread. To the relief of Dan, his wife Laura, his five children and extended family, it had not.
“The last thing you want to do is wait around,” said Dan. “That’s not how it worked at Community.”
Dan was inspired by Dr. Agarwala’s approach to treatment.
“He said essentially we’re going to fight it hard, and we’re going for a cure,” said Dan. “In this kind of situation, what you need is hope, and he gave it to me.”
Yet, physically, Dan continued to feel weaker. He lost his hunger, and, in a matter of eight weeks, he lost 40 pounds. He could no longer walk – his only way to move was to have his wife push him in a wheelchair. A tumor discovered on his trachea paralyzed his vocal chords, leaving him unable to speak for nearly five months.
Dan’s treatment regimen included chemotherapy once a week and six weeks of radiation every weekday under the guidance of Daniel Weed, MD, an MD Anderson Cancer Network® certified physician specializing in radiation oncology. About two weeks into the treatment, Dan started eating again. Yet, food tasted like wax, and he was having negative side effects to the chemo regimen.
During a time when Dan was feeling down and defeated, things took a turn.
He and his wife were approached by a Community social worker, who offered them financial assistance through the Oncology Patient Assistance Fund. The fund offers cancer patients in financial need $250 vouchers that can be used for food, medicine or gas to get to and from treatment.
For the Pughs, the financial impact of Dan’s diagnosis was only compounding the physical and emotional burdens of his disease. Both self-employed interior and exterior residential painters, Dan and Laura were unable to work for some time following Dan’s diagnosis. This meant there was no income.
“Money-wise, we were slim, so the voucher helped immensely,” he said. “When you’re sick, you have to concentrate on getting well, and that voucher meant one less thing to stress about.”
Dan’s niece also started a GoFundMe account, which met its goal in only four days, helping to raise money for the family.
“Between that and the voucher, they got us through,” Dan said.
The support of his family – emotionally, mentally and spiritually – also emboldened Dan.
“I know I was so lucky because of my support system,” he said. “As awful and as hard as it was, I saw so much beauty from family, friends and even total strangers.”
He recognized that much of his life was out of his control at the moment, but he could do two things to strengthen his body – eat and move. He began eating to sustain his body’s fight, taking in anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, and he started walking. At first, he would walk around his home. Then, he moved outside taking 100 steps, then 500 steps, then the length of one block and eventually began walking five miles each day.
“I learned that what you can’t control, you have to let go and pray and hope for the best,” he said.
Following chemo and radiation, Dan participated in a three-month long clinical study that helped to ward off the cancer. Today, less than a year and a half from his diagnosis, he is finished with treatment. He continues to see Dr. Agarwala every three months for follow-up appointments. At his most recent scan came great news – Dr. Agarwala shook his hand, congratulated him and declared him cancer-free.
Dan is beyond grateful for the care he received – care that made him what he calls “a success story.” While he and Laura are back to work and closer to being back on their feet financially, they know how much the support of others meant to them in their fight. Now, they are focused on spreading the word and helping others in situations like his.
“This is our chance to give back a little,” said Dan, about sharing his story. “So much has been given to me – now it’s my turn.”