Relay for Life chair believes in miracles
For Kurt Gundacker it's not a matter of if his cancer will return, it's a matter of when. That's just the way melanoma works, explained Gundacker on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
It's scary for the 66 year-old Rosemount resident, but it's the nature of the disease he has been battling for the last seven years.
Gundacker, the 2010 Rosemount Relay for Life chair, started his battle with skin cancer in 2003. He had a sore on his foot. He knew he needed to get it checked out but put it off.
"I should have taken care of it sooner," said Gundacker.
Then, during a routine physical exam, his family doctor noticed the spot and told him he needed to get it checked by a dermatologist. He had the spot biopsied and it came back positive for melanoma.
He then had to have a larger area of the inside of his foot taken off. They also checked his lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread. It had, and that meant Gundacker had some decisions to make. He had 14 lymph nodes removed. His doctor in Minneapolis recommended he undergo chemotherapy as well.
Being in the health care business, Gundacker knew he didn't want to do that, so he asked for a referral to the Mayo Clinic. His doctor there recommended he start on a drug called Leukine.
"Their philosophy is to not kill the good cells, which chemo does," said Gundacker of Mayo's oncology department.
He stayed on Leukine and had nearly five cancer free years. Then in 2008, like a beast, the melanoma returned.
Gundacker was traveling to Texas for a business trip. He had been having headaches and his wife, Rita, had noted that his behavior was abnormal.
"Kurt usually hates to be late and I kept having to tell him to hurry up or he was going to miss his flight. It just wasn't like him," said Rita.
While talking to his nurse over the phone, Rita commented on his symptoms. The nurse told Rita that Gundacker needed to come in right way.
Gundacker flew back and doctors found a four-centimeter tumor in the front of his head. Rita said the area of the brain where the tumor was located affects a person's scheduling and decision making.
Within days doctors surgically removed the tumor from Gundacker's brain. It turned out he had stage four melanoma. He underwent radiation therapy and then went on an oral chemotherapy. His nurse told them that the average life expectancy is nine months.
"It was a very scary time," said Rita.
Gundacker didn't give up though. He went back on Leukine and has been cancer-free since. That was more than 28 months ago.
While he's happy to be cancer free as of June, Gundacker knows how quickly that could change. He goes down to Mayo for scans every couple of months. Gundacker will be able to push back the scans if he stays cancer free for longer. But the longest he will ever be able to go is six month.
"We want to catch it early, treat it and move on," said Gundacker.
So for now he's in holding pattern. He's cancer free but he knows that can change at any time.
"You just don't know. I'm always stressed out to some level," said Gundacker.
One of the ways he has dealt with the stress is to keep working. Gundacker, a retired Army soldier, works for the Veterans Health Administration. He plans to retire at the end of August but will continue to do some consulting.
Additionally, he has kept physically active. While he can't run long miles anymore, he walks with Rita and his golden retriever, Autumn. He even hopes to hit the slopes this winter, something he hasn't done in several years.
"They're my support group," said Gundacker, smiling at his wife and dog alike. "Rita has been tremendous."
As honorary chair for the Rosemount Relay for Life Gundacker plans to share some of his story and also wants to warn people about the dangers of the sun.
"Use sunscreen, don't use tanning beds and get checked," said Gundacker.
He's looking forward to the event and hopes to see lots of people out there.
The Rosemount Relay for Life starts at 6 p.m. Friday at Rosemount High School.