Fort Sill NCO beating Stage 4 cancer
November 1, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Deployed to Iraq in 2010, Staff Sgt. Emil Beresford fought the Global War on Terror even as another conflict, Stage 4 kidney cancer, raged within his body.
Two years and one major surgery into this war, the 30-year-old NCO credited his change in lifestyle and diet for his cancer-free CAT scans so far.
His wife, Judimer, an Army sergeant working human resources for the Fires Center of Excellence, said her husband has always been the sort of person who can't sit still. That drive combined with poor eating habits that included lots of fast food and candy certainly added to the stress his body endured on a weekly basis.
"I began to disc jockey at clubs at age 16, stayed out late and partied hard," said Emil, a Directorate of Training and Doctrine instructor. "I enlisted in the Army in 2000, worked some stressful jobs and continued to go 110 mph DJing on weekends."
Beresford's 10-year career included a previous Iraq deployment and four years as a recruiter. Work days could stretch 12-14 hours, but rest only came Sundays through Wednesdays. His alter-ego came to life Thursday nights and into the weekend as his lucrative DJ gigs took him to area clubs. Those nights frequently extended to 2-3 a.m. Work days often followed with him only getting two to four hours of sleep.
Working in recruiting, Emil began experiencing stomachaches, but often ignored the dull pain that arrived shortly after eating. That pain grew worse in Iraq and prompted him to see a doctor.
Tests revealed a golf-ball-size tumor inside his kidney. The news ended his Iraq tour, something he shared with his wife.
"When I heard he had a tumor, I kind of went into shock," said Judimer. "I was surprised because he went from being a healthy person to someone with a tumor."
Given its location inside the kidney, doctors couldn't conclusively say it was cancerous. Within 48 hours, Emil boarded a medical evacuation flight first to Landstuhl, Germany. Further tests revealed a spot on one of his lungs, and he was immediately flown home to Fort Sill. Reviewing data that suggested the likely cancerous tumor had spread to his lung, doctors operated on Emil 25 days after his arrival in early July removing his right kidney, the spot on his lung and affected lymph nodes.
Stage 4 cancer became reality for the Beresfords during a post-operation consult with their doctor.
"When the doctor said most patients with this level of cancer only live 18-20 months, I knew what I was up against and resolved in my heart to prove him wrong," said Emil.
Judimer recalled her husband's pragmatic response.
"He was very strong and positive through that and just asked the doctor what's next?" she said. "I was the one who cried, but when I saw his reaction, I composed myself and realized I had to be strong for him and for our daughter."
Not understanding what they were up against, Judimer worried about the disease's impact on Yanelin, their 2-year-old daughter.
"It was heartbreaking, what if this thing could pass to her? Was it hereditary, is daddy going to be around, could she get it later in life?" she said. "It was a very stressful time."
They decided to change their dietary habits following the surgery. Processed foods no longer found a place in the shopping cart. They instead chose organic milk and eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables, very little meat and drank filtered water.
Even as they made changes at home, doctors recommended a course of action that would radically change his life for the next year. Emil would begin a drug program that required him to take a new medicine daily. Although this drug wasn't considered chemotherapy, they do have side effects. The drug ravaged his body as his weight plummeted from 150 to 119 pounds. Often he didn't eat, and even when he did, he couldn't taste his food.
"It was horrible, sometimes he couldn't eat because of the blisters in his mouth," said
Judimer. "He endured fevers, shaking and night sweats; he couldn't play with his daughter. It was heartbreaking to see him like that.
"His skin color changed, and he looked really sick like his soul was out of his body," she said.
He dealt with this treatment for about nine months, but depression set in and he reached the limits of what he could endure.
"I decided to stop taking the pills. I remember thinking if I'm going to go, I'm going to go," said Emil.
He didn't tell his wife he stopped taking the medication, but Judimer recognized he no longer got sick and knew he made that decision.
"Initially I was upset and said he was selfish and wasn't thinking of his family," she said. "But, in the end, I understood why he did it, and anyone in that situation would have done the same thing."
Family became one instrument that revitalized him.
"One day Yanelin said something to the effect of "Daddy, I love you," and that motivated me to keep on living," said Emil. "Throughout this ordeal, my wife has been my rock, she has really helped me through this."
Emil also credited the Army, the only life he's said he's known since graduating high school.
"The Army continued to let me serve in the Warrior Transition Unit; it is a great unit to be in and recover," he said. "I don't think there are many other jobs or organizations that would let an employee go through a whole year to recover."
Judimer gave her thanks to her supervisors who allowed her to care for her husband during his extended convalescent leave. Also, their medical insurance through TRICARE made a huge difference.
"The surgery and treatment he had was very expensive, but it gave us so much peace of mind to we didn't have to wonder how we would pay for his medication or other medical bills," she said.
Shortly after Emil's drug therapy ended he went in for a CAT scan. It came back cancer-free as did each follow-up scan given every six months. He said those scheduled scans will continue for the next two to three years.
Dr. Nadim Nimeh, a cancer doctor at The Cancer Center of Southwest Oklahoma in Lawton, said compared to other Stage 4 cancers, such as pancreas, liver or melanoma, the outlook for kidney cancer patients is good. He did say many patients are monitored for the rest of their lives to ensure the cancer doesn't return.
"I believe cancer was something I had to go through," said Emil. "If I had continued the way I was going and not went to the doctor, I would have been dead by now."
Though he still DJs he doesn't do the late nights. Instead he spends more time with his family. As for functioning with only one kidney, doctors told him most people do fine. He needs to keep excess weight off which complies with Army fitness requirements.
Thanks in part to his DJ earnings Emil started working on a pilot's license to fly airplanes a few years ago. That new passion does appear hereditary as Yanelin, who will be 4 years old in December, said she wants to be his co-pilot someday.
"Everyday is my motivation to live -- looking at my daughter I realize I could have missed watching her grow up," he said.
The budding pilot may want to consider a larger airplane soon as the couple is expecting another "blessing," a baby boy who will arrive in February.
Though she said her husband has slowed down a bit, she recognizes he will continue to live life to the fullest.
"He's involved in everything, but I understand, because he doesn't want to waste any time," she said. "To go through something like cancer and still be together, I can say we have a strong bond."