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Couple Thankful For Recovery

Al Musella's Comments: (This is his personal views and are not necessarily the views of the Musella Foundation!)


Posted on: 11/27/2003

Couple Thankful For Recovery


Published: Nov 27, 2003

ZEPHYRHILLS - Three weeks ago, Kris McAlvanah shopped for a cemetery plot for her husband. Today, as she sits down to Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends, she will be thanking God for a miracle.

In October, City Attorney Tom McAlvanah was given three months to live. A recently removed brain tumor had grown back, and doctors feared the worst. But after intensive treatment, a brain scan showed no measurable cancer, much to the surprise of his family and his doctors.

"I was floored," said Susan Snodgrass, Tom's neurooncologist at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa. "There's been a dramatic improvement."

And this isn't the first time.

McAlvanah, 56, has battled brain cancer off and on since 2001. He's had two operations to remove tumors, and on both occasions the prognosis was grim.

The first time, his doctors said there was a fair chance he would lose his ability to walk or talk, if he survived the procedure. He was back at work two weeks later.

When another tumor was discovered in August, Tom underwent a second surgery. He and Kris were worried but optimistic he could come through it as he had before.

Though his recovery wasn't quite as smooth or quick this time, Tom seemed to improve each day.

Then, on Oct. 16, the McAlvanahs got some bad news: Despite two months of chemotherapy, the tumor had grown back.

"They gave him three months, at best," Kris said, the memory still causing her pain. "They said to call hospice, and that's what we did."

Tom wasn't ready to give up just yet. He checked into the hospital and began an intensive three days of chemotherapy. He also took a drug designed to treat lung cancer that had showed promise in brain cancer patients. But the doctors weren't optimistic.

When a tumor grows back so quickly, Snodgrass said, "We don't expect it to respond" to therapy.

Tom, too, was losing his will to keep fighting.

"I gave up," he said, tired of being in the hospital and drained from the treatment. He made peace with death and told his wife he was "waiting for the bright white light."

Hearing him say that was like a knife in her heart, Kris said.

"I wanted him to keep trying, but it had to be his decision," she said, so she kept her tears to herself and began preparing for his death.

Kris made funeral arrangements. Tom signed a "do not resuscitate" order. A nurse from Hernando-Pasco Hospice came to their home with a "comfort kit" containing morphine to help Tom with the pain. The nurse told the family what to expect in the coming months.

The waiting began. Every time Kris went into a store decorated for the holidays, she cried.

"I wondered if he was going to die on Christmas," she said.

A Renewed Will To Live

Then one morning, Tom overheard his wife on the phone arranging a physical therapy session for him. Though he didn't want any more treatment, he did want physical therapy. But when he heard Kris break down in tears after telling the person on the phone he had only three months to live, Tom decided it was time to fight.

He had an appointment for a brain scan Nov. 12, the day after he overheard Kris' phone call. They had forgotten to cancel the appointment, and though it seemed unnecessary now that he was receiving hospice care, Tom wanted to go.

That was the day Snodgrass and other doctors looked at the images of his brain and noticed the improvement. Though the cancer wasn't gone, the picture was considerably brighter.

"We all went in and hugged him," Snodgrass said. "He's a very special patient."

Kris, who had just hoped the scan would reveal Tom was strong enough to undergo more treatment, was shocked.

"It looked like a normal brain, except for one small area," she said.

The couple cried.

"I didn't think anything like that could happen," Tom said.

They went to a restaurant to celebrate with beer and ribs, and they've been celebrating every day since. Though Tom still has a lot of treatment and rehabilitation ahead of him, that doesn't dampen their happiness.

They can plan things without the fear Tom won't be around to do them. They're even planning a cruise for early next year, and Tom would like to return to work. The holidays no longer fill them with dread.

For now, Kris is just focusing on Thanksgiving. Even though the events of the past few months have left her tired and overwhelmed, and she doesn't feel much like cooking, she knows she and her family have much to be thankful for this year.

"This is a gift," she said. "It really is."

Reporter Jaymi Freiden can be reached at (813) 779-4613.

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