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Cancer survivor believes in miracles

Source: Beloit Daily News

Author: Hillary Gavan

Published: July 22, 2014

If you have it, you will most likely die within months. The odds of surviving five years or more is only 6 percent. So when Donald Decker talks to you, it’s a miracle.

Decker is alive five years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — a type which normally gives patients an average life expectancy of three to six months, according to statistics from the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research website at

He credits his faith and Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) for helping him win the fight of his life. Decker, of Beloit, the husband of Mary, father of son Kenneth Decker, Crystal Rutkowski and Sarah Greenwood and grandfather of six, was 48 years old when he heard his grim diagnosis in 2009 after having severe back pain.

Although he initially thought it was his kidney stones again, Decker actually had a large tumor on the tail of his pancreas and six tumors in his liver, meaning the cancer was metastatic.

The engineer from Tankcraft in Darien assumed he was done with his career and possibly his life if the statistics proved true. But it didn’t prevent Decker from putting up one heck of a fight. He called CTCA that very day, after he recalled how they treated his late father who had also struggled with cancer.

Within three days he was headed to Zion, Ill., where he was assigned a team and a game plan.

“I felt much better about the fact they had a plan for me. They never said you have three or six months,” Decker said. “I think the approach tailored to people’s individual needs was the key.”

Decker said he was surprised with the response by CTCA, being assigned an oncologist, nutritionist, a spiritual adviser and physical therapist to follow his case. CTCA presented three treatment options, and Decker went for the most aggressive. He said he knew he was risking death by the cancer or the treatment.

“I went with the treatment and it worked,” he said.

Decker underwent intra-arterial chemotherapy, which delivers chemotherapy drugs directly to a tumor via his leg artery. The 15-hour procedure was done once a month for six months. It was followed by six months of full body chemotherapy.

Despite his exhausting regimen, Decker said he was impressed how the same team would keep meeting with him and he was treated as a whole person. Nurses and doctors would pray with him.

“There’s spiritual support everywhere at the center. Nurses and doctors are not afraid to display that,” he said.

Decker credited CTCA for saving not only him, but his youngest daughter’s mother-in-law Marie Greenwood. She was diagnosed with melanoma in November of 2010 and was given six to nine months to live when Decker referred her to CTCA. After receiving her grim diagnosis she and her husband drove to a hospital in another state, only to be told she couldn’t begin treatment for two weeks as she was already diagnosed. With time ticking away, Greenwood was able to get in CTCA within days. Although her cancer had spread to her colon, heart, lungs and kidneys and she was only given a 2 to 10 percent chance of survival, Greenwood is cancer-free thanks to Don and Mary Decker.

“I got through it. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but today I got it,” she said.

After Decker’s year battling with pancreatic cancer, the tumors on his liver were completely gone and the tumor on his pancreas had shrunk from the size of a golf ball to the size of a pea and was inactive.

However two years after his initial diagnosis there was detection of some activity of the tumor so he doctors surgically removed a third of his pancreas and removed his spleen in April of 2011, and Decker underwent follow-up chemotherapy and radiation using tomatherapy, a system to treat hard-to-reach tumors.

“With this new technology they focus on a spot, and lock in on it. They can be very direct with the radiation so they don’t damage other tissue,” Decker said.

It was another grueling six months where Decker would go five days a week, usually at 4 a.m. so he would be able to go back to work. He still credits his employer for being so understanding and supportive during his battle, as well as wife, family and friends. He had an especially helpful buddy in his granddaughter Madelyn Greenwood, who was one at the time, and would “hang out” when he was home and unable to work.

After his last surgery, follow-up chemotherapy and radiation, Decker has remained cancer free.

Decker, who said his only hobbies are work and family, is just glad to be back to normal, getting to enjoy the annual July 4th party held at his home. He’s still tight with Madelyn, now 6, as well as his other five grandchildren.

He still gets scans and has to keep a close watch on his health, but is grateful to be alive. He went to celebrate life celebration for 5-years survivors at CTCA, taking 26 people with him to root him on. Greenwood was there with him, one of his biggest supporters who will also be celebrating 5-years of survival next year.

“It was the greatest party I had ever been to. I have mine next year and I’m really excited. He’s been my mentor,” Greenwood said. “He’s my hero.”

Although it will be business as usual for Decker, he is getting trained to become someone others with cancer can call. Whenever someone wants to talk, he said he’ll be there.

“I give them my story and will become an advocate for getting through it,” he said.