Dan Barash was sure he was a dead man.
Just hours before he and his family were about to celebrate another Thanksgiving, Barash’s pulmonologist called. Tests showed a tumor the size of an orange on the lower end of his left lung might be cancer.
Barash hung up the phone. He hadn’t smoked since his son was born nine years ago. He’d gotten annual checkups, including lung X-rays. He was always told they looked good, as clear as a summer’s day. He remembered the sod he’d just planted in his yard.
I’m not going to even see my grass turn green, he said to no one in particular.
Maybe not but the executive chef for FOCUS Brands had Thanksgiving Day, his wife, Lauren, and his son. They were expecting a dozen or so family members for Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey and all the trimmings were on the menu.
Two weeks later on Dec. 4, doctors confirmed their suspicion. Barash, 42, had stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to his right lung.
It was a big leap from pneumonia with a bacterial infection, the initial diagnosis given him in June 2014, and even though test after test had turned up no signs of cancer, they were sure. It was indeed cancer.
Hearing the diagnosis was easy. Digesting the disease’s high mortality rate was the hard part. Barash could die.
Lung cancer is a common condition with nearly 225,000 cases diagnosed each year in the United States. In Georgia, nearly 6,500 new cases are diagnosed annually. An estimated 158,040 people are expected to die this year from lung cancer in the U.S.; 4,660 in Georgia.
Patients with localized cancer can be cured with aggressive therapy. For those with more advanced disease, long-term survival depends upon the genetic characteristics of the tumor, said Dr. Suresh S. Ramalingam, professor of hematology and medical oncology at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University.
With the advent of targeted therapy and personalized treatment approaches, Ramalingam said a favorable survival trend is emerging. In recent years, the survival outcomes for every stage of lung cancer have improved considerably.
For patients like Barash, Ramalingam said doctors estimate they will now live years rather than months.
After treating a second round of pneumonia, doctors gave Barash three options: have the tumor drained, treat the pneumonia with antibiotics and move forward with another round of chemotherapy, or try surgery to remove the tumor.
It was a long shot, but Barash wanted to live. He chose surgery.
“Leaving the tumor was less risky,” he reasoned. “Removing it could help me live longer and improve my quality of life.”
And so Barash begged his doctors to take the tumor out. They were reluctant. Only 2 percent of stage 4 patients get surgery, but they agreed.
That first round of chemo nearly killed him.
“I was vomiting six, eight times a day,” Barash remembered the other day while waiting to see his oncologist. “I was in bed 20 hours a day. I lost 40 pounds.”
Fortunately, he had weight to lose.
On Feb. 5, 2015, about the time he and Lauren normally travel to Beaver Creek, Colo., for their annual ski trip, doctors took the tumor out.
Six months later, Barash is feeling good, better than he ever dreamed. And except for a little fatigue and a rash on his face and body, he’s healthy.
Given Barash’s tumor genetics, his excellent overall condition and lack of other medical illnesses, Ramalingam said doctors are optimistic about keeping his cancer under control for a very long time.
Still, he has to ask: What is my life expectancy?
Doctors yell at him and ask, “How do you feel?”
His answer is always the same: “I feel good.”
Be happy with that, they tell him, and he is.
In April, he returned to work. Today he’s back at the Winship Cancer Institute for his monthly checkup with one of his heroes, Dr. Ramalingam.
Today he’s pretty excited. Team Dan has raised more than $11,000 so far for the Atlanta Free to Breathe 5K Run/Walk, one of a series of annual events held to raise money for lung cancer research, education and awareness programs. Their goal was $10,000.
Before his diagnosis, Barash said he never thought much about such things, but the threat of death has a way of changing a man’s focus.
If he were ever asked and he was asked a lot, he always gave but cause and effect was always far from his mind. That’s changed now.
After his diagnosis, Lauren immediately went in search of anything and everything related to cancer. When friends, family and their colleagues at FOCUS Brands asked what they could do, she had the answer. Walk.
“I sent a note to everyone I’d been emailing over the months with updates,” she said.
In no time, 100 people had signed up to walk with Team Dan.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for people, including those with cancer who came before me,” he said. “They inspired me to do this.”
Federal funding for lung cancer continues to be relatively low, Ramalingam said. Private sources of funding are critical to increase research efforts to develop new treatment options and find a cure.
“It is well known that screening patients at high risk for lung cancer with CT scans can reduce deaths related to lung cancer by 20 percent, similar to the use of mammograms to detect breast cancer at earlier stages,” Ramalingam said. “Increasing awareness and raising funds to fuel more research” is critical.
And so come Aug. 22, Dan Barash, no longer satisfied with being a passive giver, intends to give his all to help fund lung cancer research. But he won’t just open his wallet. He will open his heart, mind and soul, too.
“This isn’t just about making a donation,” he said. “This is about finding a cure for real people.”
That sounds like a man who’s found his purpose.
ABOUT THE COLUMNIST
Gracie Bonds Staples is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples was recently promoted to Senior Features Enterprise Writer. Look for her columns Thursdays and Saturdays in Living and alternating Sundays in Metro.
Atlanta Free to Breathe 5K Run/Walk
7 a.m. Aug. 22. $15-$35. Piedmont Park, 400 Park Drive N.E., Atlanta. www.freetobreathe.org.