Russell (Russ) Owen was always the picture of health. The 42-year-old father of three got in the best shape of his life with intense P90X workouts so, in the summer of 2011, he decided to subject his body to a second round.
“As I progressed through the hour-long workout regimen, it didn’t get any easier,” said Russ, a New England native and healthcare investment banker. “I was laboring more and feeling lightheaded. I just wasn’t myself. That didn’t happen the first time.”
Coupled with the marked difference in stamina were restless nights. Russ experienced sharp lower abdominal pains he thought were from a stomach ulcer. He made an appointment with a primary care physician who diagnosed his symptoms as acid reflux or irritable bowel syndrome. He left the office with a prescription for Zantac, used to treat ulcers and acid reflux.
“I knew in my gut that wasn’t it. It felt more intense than reflux, so I called a GI (gastrointestinal) specialist who made a similar diagnosis and medication referral as primary care,” said Russ. “I insisted the doctor do an upper GI endoscopy.”
Thankfully, being his own health advocate paid off, but not in the way anyone suspected. A biopsy was taken since the x-rays showed redness and tenderness in his lower intestine. The call providing his biopsy results came on a Saturday, three days later than expected. It was June 11, 2011.
“It was the GI specialist saying, ‘hey, we need to talk. You’ve got cancer,’” said Russ. “I was scared and shocked trying to make sense out of what he was saying since I try hard to take care of my body. Since I had no reason to learn which cancers were more fatal, I thought the news was a death sentence.”
Unfortunately, the cancer was not detected early. Russ was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic testicular cancer, which meant the cancer had already spread to other areas of his body. After reassurances from the physician about the curable nature of this cancer, Russ was immediately referred to Dr. Bruce Gould with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers’ (NGOC) Marietta Cancer Center.
“The first time we met, Dr. Gould relayed information about my cancer and the fact it presented itself so uniquely,” said Russ, who had none of the typical symptoms of testicular cancer including an enlargement or lump or pain and discomfort in the groin area. “I had small malignancy in my testicle, but surprisingly the cancer had worked its way to my lower intestinal tract and lymph nodes. Dr. Gould encouraged me, but leveled with me about my advanced stage of cancer and what I would be facing to fight it.”
Russ underwent more diagnostic tests to confirm the advanced nature of his cancer and began aggressive chemotherapy treatments – four, three-week cycles for three months. He and his wife, Kristina, became regulars at the NGOC infusion center with Nurse Shamichael (Shay) Taylor, a constant in his care. Her personal care made the chemo more bearable as he progressively got more ill and battled wild fluctuations in his weight and tachycardia. “My heart was racing when I was at rest, said Russ. “It was a bit scary, since Dr. Gould told me this wasn’t normal.”
“The special thing about NGOC was the care,” added Russ. “I became very close to Dr. Gould, who is such a ‘salt of the earth’ type of guy, and the nurses. I felt comfortable, not only with the care, but with people delivering it. I felt like I was part of a family.”
Chemotherapy ended in September 2011. Although it took a toll on his body, it did the job. Early October, he got the news he was in remission. Everything checked out fine. Russ continues to see Dr. Gould every three months but has a renewed appreciation for life and those around him every day.
While undergoing chemo, Russ read pro-cyclist Lance Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life,” about his battle with testicular cancer. It inspired Russ to switch up his workout routine for a greater purpose. “I was inspired to start riding my bike to raise money for cancer research,” said Russ. “I came through a harder journey than riding 65 miles. I knew I could do it.”
The Lance Armstrong connection didn’t start with the book. Dr. Gould shared the uniqueness of Russ’ case with a testicular cancer expert, an oncologist at Indiana University Simon Cancer Center who helped treat during Lance’s 1996 battle. He also had never seen testicular cancer manifest itself the way it did in Russ.
Inspired and grateful, Russ joined Armstrong’s charitable organization Team LIVESTRONG and rode in the LIVESTRONG Challenge Austin, TX Ride in October 2012. He and his brother, Sasha, rode under the team name “Band of Brothers” and raised nearly $11,000 for the foundation to help conquer cancer on the open road. Russ recently became a LIVESTRONG fundraising mentor for Region 3 (FL, GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, and VA) and participated in the 2013 LIVESTRONG Assembly in Chicago.
“I would encourage patients to rest in the knowledge that NGOC is giving you the best care available,” said Russ. “The medical advances are amazing. Having cancer has taught me to go for it. You just have to keep fighting.”
Russ learned that’s where the rubber meets the road.