Gary H.

Thyroid Cancer - Stage 4

Gary Hackney

In 2011, I attended Celebrate Life®, which City of Hope hosts for five-year cancer survivors who have treated at their hospitals. I was so happy to be able to celebrate with my family and friends.

This testimonial includes a description of this patient’s actual medical results. Those results may not be typical or expected for the particular disease type described in this testimonial. You should not expect to experience these results. 

I am just an ordinary guy who has been through a lot over the years. But no matter what, I’ve always managed to pull through. I have become a better person because of what I’ve experienced.

On Nov. 1, 1989, Gary, my son and best friend, was killed by a drunk driver. It took me years to forgive the driver, but I did. Then on May 18, 2007, my family faced another unimaginable tragedy. My grandson, Connor, had been killed in an accident. He ran out from behind a neighbor’s vehicle as she was pulling out of her driveway and was hit. Connor was just days away from turning 3.

The deaths of my son and grandson have deeply affected me, as have my personal struggles with health. I’ve had nearly 30 surgeries, including a colon resection, knee replacement and surgery to remove a tumor that was attached to my appendix. By far, though, the toughest health battle I’ve fought is against cancer.

My thyroid cancer diagnosis and initial treatment

In November 2005, I was working in a lumberyard in my hometown of McHenry, in northern Illinois. I developed a sore throat and thought nothing of it. But by the time May came around and it was still bothering me, I knew I had better get to the doctor. My doctor gave me an antibiotic, but my throat still didn’t feel right. I went to an ENT doctor, and he gave me Nexium® because he thought it might be acid reflux. I took it for a month, and I still had a sore throat. The doctor then ordered a CT scan. It didn’t show anything. Finally, I requested a biopsy.

I had a needle biopsy. Later that same week, my doctor called me at work and said another doctor wanted to see me and my wife, Carol, that day at 5 o’clock. All I could think of was that my father had died of stomach cancer and throat cancer in 1992. I was always leery of having throat cancer. Turns out my fears weren’t too far off. Carol and I received the bad news: It was thyroid cancer, or what the doctors call papillary carcinoma of the thyroid.

In August 2006, I underwent a total thyroidectomy at a local hospital. In the 10-hour surgery, the doctor took out my thyroid and several lymph nodes. As the months passed, I was in pain and had been vomiting, so I began to look for help elsewhere.

Watching TV one day, I saw a commercial for Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).* I called the phone number for CTCA® and talked to an Information Oncology Specialist. She was such a nice lady. She sent me an information packet about CTCA right away. We were impressed with her and with what we heard about CTCA, so we decided it was worth seeing what they could do to help me.

Carol worked with the Oncology Information Specialist to make arrangements for us to travel to CTCA in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a consultation. Days later, we were on a plane. I was scared, and I didn’t know what to expect. But I’m so glad we went.

Dealing with lymphedema at CTCA

We met with so many people on my first day at CTCA. When I met with my medical oncologist, she immediately knew what was wrong with me. She explained that I had severe lymphedema.

She ordered therapy right away to help get my lymphedema under control. The pain management team also helped me to deal with the pain.

I began to receive manual therapy for lymphedema on my neck at CTCA in Tulsa. My physical therapist there was so unique. He would just close his eyes and feel in my neck where the lymphatic fluid needed to drain. He would massage my neck and open up the passages so the fluid would drain and the swelling would go down.

Eventually, I was able to transfer my lymphedema therapy to the CTCA hospital closest to my home, CTCA in Zion, Illinois. I received my therapy there for a number of months. My care team also showed me how to use compression garments, such as one that I wore on my chest, to help reduce lymphedema swelling.

In total, I had three years of manual lymphedema therapy. Many of the therapy sessions were at CTCA, and others were at a facility in my hometown.

I continue to return to the Tulsa hospital to see my medical oncologist for checkups. I have a local oncologist at CTCA in Illinois who I also see regularly and who keeps in touch with my oncologist in Tulsa. It’s worked out well. They share my medical records and communicate about my health. On August 6, 2017, I celebrated my 11th “cancerversary”—meaning I've had no evidence of disease for 11 years.

Life as a Cancer Fighter and ambassador

One of the best things resulting from my journey with cancer has been the Cancer Fighters® program, which is a support group CTCA offers for patients and caregivers. I signed up to participate in the program during one of my first visits to CTCA in Tulsa. In October 2009, Carol and I received an invitation to a special dinner being held for Cancer Fighters who lived in the areas surrounding CTCA at Midwestern. This was the first of many social outings we would attend for the Cancer Fighters program. It was a wonderful night, one that would change my life.

During the dinner, we were asked if we would like to volunteer at the hospital. I decided I was interested, so I stayed to get more information. Ever since then, I’ve been volunteering at the hospital three days a week. As a Cancer Fighters ambassador, I get to do what I love—talk with patients and caregivers. I also often speak to new employees at the hospital as part of their orientation.

Thanks to the Cancer Fighters program, I’ve participated in walks for charities and was honored as a survivor at a Chicago Wolves hockey game. For the 2009 holidays, I was even asked to light a tree at the hospital during a special ceremony.

Cancer has changed my life

During one of my visits to Tulsa for treatment, something inside of me clicked. I realized I had to change the way I think to change my life. I wanted to be more positive and to give more to others in need. I learned that when you give, you get.

The most difficult part of my journey has been not being able to work. Sometimes I feel as though it’s taken away my manhood, to a degree. I am now in my 60s, and I am on disability. It sucks. And while I no longer have cancer, I do have other health issues. But you know what? It means a lot to me every day just to wake up.

I have made many friends at both CTCA hospitals—patients, caregivers and CTCA employees. I stay in contact with a lot of people through emails, calls and Facebook.

In 2011, I attended Celebrate Life®, which CTCA hosts for five-year cancer survivors who have treated at their hospitals. I was so happy to be able to celebrate with my family and friends. But, more so, I look forward to being there for my family and friends. I love my wife, Carol, so much. She is my inspiration. She has fought multiple sclerosis for years, and she never lets it get the best of her. She teaches special needs kids at a local high school, and she is great with the kids. On Christmas Eve 2010, we renewed our wedding vows at our church.

Because of CTCA and the Cancer Fighters program, I feel like I have my life back. I’d especially like to thank Carol, too, for not giving up on me when I gave up on myself, and for having faith for both of us.

* Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) is now City of Hope®, working together to expand patient access to personalized, comprehensive cancer care. Because this patient testimonial was written and published before CTCA® and City of Hope joined forces, mentions of legacy CTCA locations have not been updated in the interest of maintaining the patient’s original voice and story details.