Beating The Odds

Man surprised doctors, survived rare cancer at 16

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One week from Friday, the Relay for Life will be held on the track of Payson High School to raise money for cancer education and research.

If it is successful, there will be only one reason: hope.

Cancer in all its forms is such a devastating disease, and its cure has been so elusive for so long, that sometimes it may seem that cancer will ultimately win out, that any real human victory is beyond hope.

At those times, do yourself a favor and introduce yourself to Robert Dietrich.

Today, this Payson resident in 26 years old. But on Thanksgiving Day in 1989 the day he discovered that one of the lymph nodes on his neck was swollen he was only 16.

Since Dietrich had a history of allergies and problems caused by his allergies, his doctor thought they'd simply struck again. But the swelling never went down. And six months later, his other lymph gland swelled up.

"They were both huge," Dietrich said. "It looked like I had golf balls in my neck. I couldn't turn my head from side to side. But I really didn't think too much about it."

His doctor started to wonder, though.
Robert was sent to an ear, nose and throat specialist in Mesa, and a needle biopsy was performed on the first problematic gland. Abnormal cells were discovered.

The next day, they removed his other lymph gland and found more abnormal cells possibly cancerous.

A scalpel was used to remove snippets of flesh from Dietrich's throat, tongue and cheek.

That happened on April 13, 1990. Dietrich remembers every important moment in his life as vividly as parents remember when their children were born.

"They found cancer cells," Dietrich said. "I don't remember my parents telling me I had cancer, but they say they did on that night. I don't remember knowing until the next day, when the (ear, nose and throat specialist) was changing my bandages, and he said, 'Robert, you have a very strange, rare illness. But with time and medicine and your family, you can get through it.'

"I could feel the tears welling up when he said, 'You have cancer.' I could feel the corners of my mouth pulling down to cry, you know?

"But I took a deep breath and said, 'All right. Let's get through this. No problem. I can fight this.'"

What the doctors had found was "nasal pharyngenial carcinoma, a non-Hodgkins lymphatic cancer which, at the time, was the second-rarest cancer known to medical science. Dietrich was the second person in the state of Arizona known to have contracted the disease. The first did not survive.

But Dietrich immediately found something positive in his situation: his mother, Catalina, his father, Bob, and his two brothers.

"What was neat was that everyone in my family took it differently," Dietrich said. My older brother, Leo, had always been there to protect me in life. My mother has always been very religious. And my father ... stayed right beside me for two weeks.

"My mother was my religious support, my father was the guy I could talk to and who'd hold my hand while I was throwing up, and my older brother well, it was really hard for him, because he felt he couldn't do anything to help his little brother. That was really tough on him. But I knew he was there for me. And my younger brother, James, really looked up to me, so that helped me keep up my positive attitude if for no one else but him, you know?"

Because no successful treatment for his brand of cancer had yet been found, Dietrich became what he calls a "medical guinea pig" for a new treatment.

And not a pretty one.

Dietrich was administered three different types of chemotherapy, simultaneously, plus a total of 35 radiation treatments, nonstop for eight days. Then he'd be sent home for two weeks before having to return to the hospital and start all over again. Which he did four times.

"I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," Dietrich said. "It seemed like they would keep me on chemotherapy until just before I would die. Then they'd take me off ... I got walls of canker sores on my mouth and tongue. Before the treatment, I weighed about 130 pounds; after the first week, I was down to 95. The clothes I wore into the hospital were hanging off me. I couldn't eat, I couldn't swallow, couldn't chew.

"But I didn't want to look sickly for my family. I didn't want them to feel sorry for me. And that gave me more power to believe in myself, more strength to get through it."

And he did get through it. Exactly three months to the day after his diagnosis July 13, 1990 Dietrich was told by his doctor, "We see no trace of your cancer whatsoever." And the chance of it not coming back, they said, is greater than the chance of it returning.

The only negative after-effect of all the nuclear therapy Dietrich had undergone was the "termination" of his salivary glands, which have not regenerated despite his doctors' predictions that they would within three to five years.

"It's been 10 years," Dietrich said, "and I still have to carry a bottle of water with me wherever I go. I have no saliva at all ... but that's no problem, considering what could have been. Not being able to spit has just become a part of who I am," he added with a laugh.

Was there ever a point when Dietrich thought, "I'm not going to make it?"

"No. Never. I never thought that," he said. "I thought, 'I'm gonna beat this thing, whatever it takes.' I never lost hope.

"The only time I cried during that six months of chemotherapy and radiation was when I was looking at myself in the mirror. I was mad at myself because I couldn't make myself eat. I said, 'Robert, what are you doing? You want to eat. You have an appetite. Eat!'

"But I couldn't. That was the only time I cried not counting when they told me I was in remission."

Also at that moment, Dietrich set a new goal for himself.

"I decided that, while I'm here, I have to make a difference. I have to make a change. Gotta do something," he said.

"I feel I was put on this earth to be a filmmaker. I've worked on screenplays, done a few documentaries and short films. I just want to show people that, when you're faced with death, you can get through it. Just believe in yourself. "That's my motto. Believe in yourself."

And, even in the face of insurmountable odds, never give up hope.

The Relay for Life will take place on the Payson High School track beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, June 2 and it will continue through the following day.

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