Randy Hillard has traveled more in the past eight years than he has his entire life.
South America. Dubai. Singapore. Sydney.
But if he went through with his plan to go to Switzerland in 2010, those trips wouldn’t have happened. That’s because eight years ago, Hillard was determined to kill himself through an assisted-suicide organization overseas.
He was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer just a few months before he went on a quest to kill himself. He suddenly realized he had become obsessive when he began planning his funeral.
“It was one rather pathetic way of asserting some control over my life,” said Hillard. “Cancer was going to kill me, and I did not intend to die yet.”
Hillard abandoned the idea after he heard about a drug called Herceptin. His oncologist at University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center suggested he give it a try.
Back in 2010, the drug had just recently been approved for stomach cancer patients and promised a slightly longer life expectancy — 11 to 13 months longer. It was a long shot: Only 20 percent of cancer patients have the HER-2 protein surrounding the cancer cell targeted by the drug.
Hillard’s metastatic tumors had that specific protein. And eight years later, it still puzzles him … well, the statistics do. Stomach cancer at his stage has an 18-percent survival rate, and, not to mention, is one of the most uncommon cancers in America.
“I wake up every day shocked at how non-dead I am,” he said.
Today, Hillard, now 67, is an outspoken patient advocate, frequently blogging in professional forums and fundraising for cancer research. But before his diagnosis, Hillard was a pretty content guy. He was a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and had good health insurance that he didn’t have to dip into much. It wasn’t until a university Halloween party in 2010, when climbing one flight of stairs knocked the wind out of him.
Slightly concerned with his breathlessness, the next day, he visited his primary care doctor, who concluded his hemoglobin level, responsible for oxygen transportation, was seven. The average is 14. Somehow, Hillard lost half his blood without knowing. Next came scans and a gastrectomy.
Eager to see the results, Hillard committed a sin: He looked at his own electronic medical records.
It said moderately differentiated adenocarcinoma of the pyloric region of the stomach. Stomach cancer. Stage 4.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘I’m dead,’ which of course shows you know why accessing your own medical records may not be the best idea,” said Hillard, who now lives in Williamston and works at Central Michigan University.
Then came the bouts of obsession over suicide. But once those thoughts subsided, Hillard got help. After weeks of targeted radiation and chemo cocktails, alongside Herceptin, Hillard in 2013 was declared to have no evidence of disease. Though he often feels “scanxiety” — anxiety when an annual scan approaches (something he wrote about on his blog).
And though his story isn’t much different from handfuls of other cancer patients with similar prognoses, his proximity to a world-renowned cancer center is one of the reasons he believes he is still alive.
U-M’s Rogel Cancer Center raises millions of dollars annually for cancer research, while also providing access to a multi-disciplinary group of physicians, like pathologists, radiologists and oncologists all focused on the most up-to-date cancer treatment. This sort of proximity, let alone access, can make a meaningful difference in a patient’s life, said Dr. Mark Zalupski, Hillard’s oncologist.
But hundreds of miles can separate rural Michiganders from cancer centers such as Rogel. And funding for certain cancers elsewhere can be rather arbitrary and based on numbers. For example, Zalupski typically treats one case of stomach cancer a year.
“If I’d gone to a community hospital that didn’t have a cancer center, they might not have started using Herceptin and then I’d be deceased,” said Hillard.
And that is why Hillard has decided to be so vocal about his story, urging others to seek second opinions, clinic trials and outside consultations.
“He has a great sense of humor and a deep appreciation for life,” said Zalupski.
That may be because Hillard is simply stunned by how far he’s come. The first few years after he was declared cancer free, he and his wife Aingeal, traveled the world as much as they could. Just in case the cancer came back. But the trips have since settled.
“I realized, ‘Wait a minute, I might not die’ so maybe we should slow down and save money again,” he laughed.
Stomach cancer awareness month is in November.