Owens: Takes life 1 day at a time in thymus battle

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 23, 2015

Eric Owens is currently tumor-free. | Andrew Garner/Star-News

Eric Owens is currently tumor-free. | Andrew Garner/Star-News

Eric Owens is taking life day by day.

The River Falls resident is tumor-free for the first time since being diagnosed with thymus cancer in June 2011.

Thymus cancer is a rare form of cancer that allows tumors to grow and attack the body’s vital organs.

Owens said the cancer is different from lung and colon cancer. The thymus is located in the chest cavity, near the esophagus, between the lungs and just above the heart.

“You don’t really get sick as much,” he said. “The only way you get it is by pneumonia — the symptoms are coughing and tiredness.”

Right now, Owens said he’s in remission, but the tumors can come back at any time.

“The type of cancer is one that you can have no tumors now and then six months later, you can have three to six of them,” he said.

In July 2011, Owens was sent to the Atlanta VA Medical Center to start chemotherapy. Unfortunately, the treatment didn’t work.

Owens said surgery and radiation do.

“Those are the only two things that work,” he said. “I was up there for a while until I felt better. Then after that, I moved to Montgomery.”

Owens said he felt OK for more than a year and around 2013, he got sick again. However, he was feeling tired as a result of having many of his veins cut out of his chest from the surgeries.

“They cut a lot of things out,” he said.

Later in 2013, Owens started experiencing the same symptoms again and had to have emergency surgery at Jackson Hospital.

The surgery came with a hefty price, he said.

“They cut me open again, and then I lost some organs — half a thyroid, half a lung and then I lost the main veins here (pointing to his chest) that allow me to exercise and walk,” he said. “Now, I’m not able to run. I’m not able to walk farther than half a mile because it can get strenuous.”

Owens admitted that dealing with this cancer has been “very taxing” on him.

“I tried work after the surgery, and went back in October of 2013,” he said. “I worked to September of 2014 and got diagnosed with stage 4 of it then. It went from stage 2 to 3.”

Because the tumors were located on Owens’ diaphragm, doctors decided that surgery was going to be too risky.

Instead, they tried chemotherapy for six months. Treatments lasted nine hours a day for three weeks at a time. The treatments didn’t work.

Owens said the process of chemotherapy is extremely painful.

“It keeps you very sick and nauseous,” he said. “You throw up a lot. It kills all of the cells in your body. It feels like your bones are shattering when you walk. You get headaches, blurred vision, stomachaches. It’s very, very painful.”

Right after he got through with his chemotherapy, Owens was treated with radiation from December 2014 to February 2015.

“I did it every day,” he said. “It made me really sick also. It was strong. Very painful. After the treatment, it was painful.”

Owens said the radiation was focused on his lung and esophagus area, adding that it made his esophagus swell up, causing him to have difficulty eating and taking his medicine.

Throughout all of this, Owens said his faith has kept him going.

“I don’t think that I’d be here without my faith in God. I really don’t,” he said. “It’s rough, but I just believed in dealing with it. Every time I went to the doctor, they’d give me six weeks. First time I went they said I wouldn’t make it past six weeks. The last time I went, they told me I wouldn’t see me making it past six weeks. This time they told me the same thing in September, but I’m still here.”

Sometimes Owens said, he looks at how others are living care-free lives, and remembers what it was like for him before his diagnosis.

“It bothers me sometimes because I used to live that care-free life,” he said. “Now I’m not able to do certain things. I’ve got to avoid getting sick again. If I get sick again, it would probably turn to pneumonia and that could be really bad.

“I’m not going to do any care-free things anymore,” he said. “I’ve had to change my whole lifestyle; my eating habits. I had to change the way I live. I’m not out late. I’ve got to get in a certain time. I’m going to keep from doing that. When it’s raining, I don’t go outside because I’m afraid I’m going to be sick.”

Owens said right now that there isn’t a cure for thymus cancer, and that doctors are searching for a cure. The cancer was so new that a sample of Owens’ cancer was sent to Stanford University in Connecticut for identification.

Owens said he’s been told that the cancer can take him even while he’s sleeping.

“It’s a silent cancer,” he said. “Every day I lay down, I don’t know if I’m going to wake up each day because the tumor can grow over night.”

Owens encouraged those who have thymus cancer to never give up.

“I just want them to understand that they’ve got to fight,” he said. “They can’t give up. Even though your doctor is out, you’ve got to fight. Because, there have been plenty of days and plenty of nights where I wanted to give up.

“If I had given up, I would’ve been gone,” he said. “It would’ve taken me by now. I just don’t let it get to me. You’ve got to believe in God, and family and friends. It’ll carry you a long way.”

Owens and his wife, Diana, have three children, Shantell, Cayden and Cayleigh, who was born just after her dad finished his radiation treatments.