ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Larry Pike wasn't in pain, but his body was looking increasingly strange.
In April 2008, comparing his current appearance with a photo of him taken at Christmas just a few months earlier emphasized the change. His face was thinner — a sign of all the weight he'd mysteriously lost — yet his midsection was inexplicably distended.
"I felt bloated all the time," the St. Joseph man remembers. "Little did I know there was something in there other than air."
An MRI taken at Heartland Regional Medical Center late that month revealed what was inside Pike was a tumor on his left kidney that had caused the organ to grow from about the size of a fist to about the size of a football. Several tests later, he was taken by ambulance to the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City for the start of what would be months of tests and treatments — but also the start of a story he and his wife, Sally, believe will offer hope to anyone else facing a seemingly desperate medical situation.
Despite how quickly he was transferred to KU Med, Larry Pike's treatment didn't begin for more than a month.
"Everyone realized the urgency of doing something," Sally Pike says, "but they didn't know what he had, so they didn't know what to do."
The course of treatment to follow became clearer after doctors' plan to remove the tumor surgically had to be scrapped upon their discovery of multiple "cluster" tumors all over his abdomen. The only option, they told the Pikes, was to try to shrink the tumors with chemotherapy a cocktail so harsh it initially shut down all his organs except his heart. Other complications arose, as well, from a blood clot moving toward his heart and bleeding of the tumors in his abdomen that resulted from a blood thinner he was put on to break up the clot.
It took 16 days for doctors to find the right chemotherapy combination and to bring Larry Pike's blood count and vital signs back to normal. Also during that time, Sally Pike was sending daily e-mail updates to a friend, Carol Lemirand, who forwarded them on to many others.
"I say she sent it to the world," Sally Pike says. "We knew from that we had a huge prayer circle."
She adds that even just three days after her husband's diagnosis, they both felt inexplicably calm — something she attributes to the fact that "prayers had gone out. Prayers for healing, but also for comfort, and those (for comfort) could be answered immediately."
The healing was slower in coming. Larry Pike underwent chemotherapy treatments every three weeks for three days at a time from May until October last year. Finally, on Oct. 21, he went into surgery to have the tumors that remained after his chemotherapy removed, and Sally Pike told herself she wouldn't worry unless the surgery stretched on more than six to eight hours.
"After just three hours, the doctor walked out of the operating room with a huge grin and said 'He's cancer free,"' she says, adding that it had been a much less involved surgery than they'd thought it might be, requiring the removal only of the kidney with the tumor and a few lymph nodes.
It wasn't until his surgery was successful that doctors told the Pikes they hadn't expected him to survive long enough to have surgery. They also told him they thought some of the most significant contributors to his survival were his positive attitude and all the support he had.
"He is definitely a miracle," says Lemirand, the friend who forwarded on Sally Pike's e-mail updates. "You always hear doctors say how much of a difference a support system makes, but it's something else entirely to actually see (the difference)."
After the initial tumor which even after chemotherapy was "still five pounds, a pretty good chunk of bread," Larry Pike says was sent to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the Pikes learned the cancer Larry Pike was now free of was an adult Wilms' tumor, which has been diagnosed in only 200 people. The tumors usually occur in children between 3 and 6 and only very rarely in anyone older than 8.
The Pikes, with their family, burned copies of the M.D. Anderson report over a patio fire pit that Thanksgiving to represent Larry Pike's recovery, then decided to pull money from their dwindling 401K and use it for a celebratory trip to Cancun last March. And on Saturday, they had a birthday party for Larry Pike that undoubtedly was much happier than his last birthday, which he spent hospitalized.
"Life is good now," Larry Pike says. "... I wish every cancer patient was as lucky as me. And I just hope someone can read this and come away with a glimmer of hope."