In the early ‘90s, Richard Erickson received news no one ever expects to hear: “You have cancer.” What’s worse, his type (follicular cancer) was incurable. “I was told back then that my cancer was 100 percent fatal within 10 years,” the now 69-year-old said. “I said, ‘Is it 100 percent or 99 percent? I volunteer to be in the 1 percent.’”
That was 25 years ago.
Follicular Cancer’s Idiosyncrasy
Follicular cancer is very slow growing—so much so that Richard had no major symptoms and received no treatment for 16 years after his initial diagnosis, blowing the 10-year projection right out of the water. “I had no symptoms for so long, I forgot I had cancer,” he said. But in 2009, a growth in his armpit caught the attention of Richard’s massage therapist. “She told me it was serious and she wouldn’t let me leave until I called my oncologist.”
And she was right. Richard’s follicular cancer had developed into a more aggressive B-cell lymphoma, and it was time for treatment. Although Dr. Perez from Sierra Nevada Cancer Center was not Richard’s oncologist initially, the two crossed paths while Richard was in the hospital to treat a lymphoma-related side effect.
“Dr. Perez was friendly and took the time to chat with me—and he wasn’t even my doctor.” That made quite an impression on Richard, who had not been pleased with his oncologist. “My pulmonologist reminded me that I could change oncologists, which I did. Now I tell other people: If you’re not happy, do some research and find someone that you can communicate with.”
Breathing Easy, Moving Forward
Richard had had fluid removed from his lungs and was on oxygen before becoming a patient at Sierra Nevada Cancer Center. After just one treatment under the care of Dr. Perez, Richard was able to breathe without an oxygen tank. “I was sitting on my porch, breathing on my own, thinking, ‘Life is really good.’” Richard said. “Cancer is not something I would wish upon anyone, but it does give you a greater appreciation for life.”
Another thing Richard appreciates is how his wife encouraged him (“in a drill sergeant way!” he recalled, laughing) to get out and exercise. “It was very difficult in the beginning. It took me 30 minutes to go 1/8 of a mile. But I did it and built on it. I came out of chemo in much better physical health than before I started, which gave me a sense of empowerment,” Richard said. “I encourage every cancer patient to take small steps, even when it’s not easy. It helps eliminate hopelessness.”
Richard’s Keys To Success
Richard has many keys to success in fighting cancer, including careful diet and exercise plans and a good support system. He also gives Dr. Perez lots of credit. “I think we’re totally blessed to have someone with Dr. Perez’s background and skill level here in northern Nevada.” He added, “The Mayo Clinic was impressed with him, too. When I relapsed, I got a second opinion there. They recommended the same treatment that Dr. Perez did, which gave me even more confidence in him.”
Another key, Richard believes, is to set goals. “I’ve had a season ski pass for the past 25 years, so my goal was to be able to ski this year, too. I finished my treatment in December, and got 20 days of skiing in this spring. I’ve got my life back.”
Richard is on an antibody drug now for maintenance, but says he has no impairment due to the disease. “I’m quite optimistic,” he said. “I’ve invited Dr. Perez to my 100th birthday party.”