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Kruk carries on despite two battles with cancer

Mountaineer - 9/22/2018

Sept. 21--The desmoid tumor in Casey Kruk's abdomen had swollen to the size of a basketball and he had dropped to 132 pounds.

Later on, after rounds of brutal chemotherapy had shrunk the tumor to approximately the size of a tennis ball and he began looking like himself again, Kruk's wife, Jennifer, joked that his gaunt physique and bald head had made him resemble E.T.

It's a joke that Kruk, the steely-eyed assistant principal, athletic director and boys basketball coach at Pisgah High School, can laugh about now, five years hence, from behind a thick salt-and-pepper beard and a generally healthy body.

But listening to him reflect on his taxing five-and-a-half month battle through chemotherapy, a battle that, at its lowest point, left him looking "like a baby bird," as he put it, it's clear that what he suffered through has molded him into a stronger -- and perhaps more grateful -- version of himself.

"That was by far the hardest thing I've ever done," he said. "But I had the thought in mind that if I can make it through all of this, and get to the other side, there are very few things I'll ever run into that will be this difficult."

Kruk, 39, has been duking it out with cancer, on-and-off, for 16 years. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 23, defeated it (or, as he now sees it, "survived it"), and eventually reached the point where he could go days on end without thinking about the disease that, in the back of his mind, he knew still lurked inside him.

But one day, around the age of 34, he discovered a large knot in his abdomen.

A doctor in Asheville told him it was probably scar tissue from the radiation treatment he received for testicular cancer, but Kruk knew that wasn't the case. After all, he had never felt it before, plus he had lost 10 pounds and wasn't eating or sleeping well. He requested a CT scan, the results of which suggested a possible recurrence of testicular cancer.

Kruk's biopsy came back inconclusive, but doctors posited that it might be lymphoma. He eventually met with a surgeon, who ultimately decided surgery would be too risky, because the tumor was attached to important arteries that, if severed, could cause Kruk to bleed to death.

From there, Kruk was sent to the Baptist Hospital at Wake Forest. For three long months, medical professionals debated a proper diagnosis and potential treatment, while the tumor continued to grow and grow until Kruk looked pregnant.

Throughout the back-and-forth, Kruk began conducting research on other cancer centers he could possibly transfer to. Two institutions kept popping up: MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He decided to contact MD Anderson. They told him to make a trip to Texas.

It was there that Kruk finally received an accurate diagnosis. The thing growing inside of him was a desmoid tumor, part of the sarcoma family, an exceedingly rare abnormal growth that arises in the connective tissue. Only one to two per 500,000 people worldwide are affected by desmoid tumors, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Kruk was in good hands at MD Anderson, however, considering the hospital has the nation's largest program for bone and soft tissue sarcomas, according to its website.

During his journey, Kruk further discovered the enigmatic nature of cancer. Some doctors considered the desmoid tumors cancerous, while others didn't. Those in the "yes" camp pointed to its quick growth rate and potential to cause death. Those in the "no" camp cited the fact that it wasn't metastasizing, i.e. spreading to other parts in the body.

The one thing everyone agreed upon was, cancerous or not, the thing had to go.

"It was chemo or nothing," said Kruk. "So I did chemo."

With that, Kruk began the most painful, exhausting and challenging period of his life. When he started chemo, he was already 40 pounds lighter than his normal weight, and the treatment proceeded to atrophy him even more.

"Brutal," is how he refers to it.

He recalls losing all of the hair on his head ("You don't know how much you need eyebrows and eyelashes until you take a shower without them," he said), and how the shots he took to boost his immune system made him hurt all over, a deep hurt, "down to the bones," as he put it. For about three days afterward, it felt like every nerve in his body was in pain.

Amazingly, Kruk only missed six days of school throughout those arduous months of treatment. Even more remarkably, he coached all 29 basketball games that season (even as he began to resemble E.T.), leading the Bears to within three victories of a statetitle. It was a made-for-Hollywood run that, Kruk admits, he doesn't remember many of the finer details about because the chemo often left him feeling out of it.

What he does remember is how his players, and the community, rallied around him.

And it wasn't just Canton and Pisgah that showed their support, either. Before games, opposing teams would call him out to half court to honor him. He received gifts and hugs and kind words from people he didn't even know, including one cancer-stricken cheerleader from Smoky Mountain High School who wrote him a card to share her story. Said Kruk: "It made me cry like a baby to hear what she had been through...but it also picked me up."

"Don't ever forget what a couple kind words can do for someone," he added. "All of these small things that people did made an incredibly hard situation manageable."

Even so, Kruk's frail physical condition started taking a toll on his psyche. Once strong and determined, he became somewhat despondent, a shadow of the man his wife had fallen in love with. And at his lowest point, it was Jennifer who told him exactly what he needed to hear.

"I'll clean it up for the newspaper, but she basically told me to suck it up," he said. "The way I was handling it wasn't how I went about everything else in my life, and it wasn't going to help me get through my condition. That snapped me back into shape."

Kruk said that doctors had predicted that his tumor would respond well to treatment and shrink in due time. What they didn't predict was for it to continue to shrink to the size is it now, which Kruk describes as a "smooshed tennis ball." It's so miniscule at this point that, going about his daily life, he doesn't even know it's there.

Indeed, looking at him now, it's impossible to tell what he's been through. He's strong, healthy, quick to smile. He hasn't had a treatment or taken a medication in five years, and he's starting to "get into a groove," as he put it, meaning cancer doesn't dominate his every thought. He does visit MD Anderson once per year for a check-up, however, and in the month leading up to the trip, anxiety creeps in.

"I start thinking about it every single day," he said. "'What are they going to find this time?' and that sort of thing. Everything becomes major. Every time a nurse looks at a chart twice you think, God, why is she looking at that? Or why is she whispering to that lady? When, in reality, they're probably just talking about lunch or something."

So far, all of Kruk's check-ups have been clear, and life has taken on a sense of normalcy that surely seemed impossible during the depths of chemo. He's doing CrossFit competitions, playing with his two sons and, this past April, ran a half marathon. Life is good, from every angle, and Kruk is deeply thankful for that.

"It's not lost on me what a gift I have been given to be alive and functioning normally after having cancer twice in 16 years," he said. "I hope to always make my wife smile and feel loved. I hope that my boys will have seen that their dad was a pretty tough dude, and know that he'll do everything within his power to teach and protect them. I hope that I'll get to be a small influence on a lot of lives before it's all said and done."

"One day, all this stuff is liable to catch up to me," he added. "But the sun hasn't set just yet."

Kruk would like to thank everybody who has been there for him throughout his battles with cancer, including his wife, Jennifer, his sons, Cooper and Kampbell, and his parents and extended family who "supported me, sat with me, travelled with me and loved me through it," as he put it. He would also like to recognize all of the doctors who worked with him throughout the process.

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(c)2018 The Mountaineer (Waynesville, N.C.)

Visit The Mountaineer (Waynesville, N.C.) at themountaineer.villagesoup.com

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