Less than a year ago, doctors told Rick Frantz he might have six months to live. In short, he took that to mean, ‘Get ready to say goodbye to my loved ones and start planning a funeral.’
Fast forward six months to today, and Frantz is back at work full-time, has his strength back, loves playing with his grandson and feels grateful to be alive.
Extreme fatigue sets off warning bells
Frantz, a 66-year-old civil structural engineer who has worked at Shell Deer Park for four years, started feeling weak during the summer of 2015. The fatigue increased throughout the rest of that year, and his energy levels, appetite and physical strength faded quickly. He started coughing a lot and experienced severe pain in his back. When he went on a fishing trip with family and friends and couldn’t even reel in a fish, he knew something was seriously wrong.
Over the course the rest of 2015, Frantz and his wife went to a myriad of doctors in an attempt to isolate the problem. Doctors pointed to exercise, diet, allergies, etc. – everything except cancer.
“In early January 2016, I was trying to put up Christmas boxes in the attic and almost fell on the stairway. Just walking up the steps exhausted me so much I felt like I was going to pass out. That was when a large lump appeared on my chest,” said Frantz.
Diagnosis comes as a shock
The following week, Frantz’s primary care physician took one look at the lump and recommended he see a cancer specialist immediately for a biopsy. The doctor confirmed that Frantz had cancer.
“I was in complete shock,” said Frantz. “I don’t have any history of cancer in my family.”
When he told his work colleagues about the diagnosis the following day, his co-worker Brett Scull – who works as a civil engineering supervisor at Shell Deer Park – told him all about Shell’s cancer management benefit offered by the MD Anderson Cancer Center, a renowned cancer research organization. Frantz didn’t know it at the time, but that benefit would ultimately save his life.
Eligible Shell employees and their dependents can enroll in MD Anderson’s Cancer Manager Program to participate. Through this program, employees and dependents receive treatment and prevention services at MD Anderson – completely free of charge. Each participant receives a case manager to coordinate their clinical services and a network member services representative to facilitate their initial appointment.
Immunotherapy clinical trial offers powerful infusions
Frantz’s wife had to take him to MD Anderson in a wheelchair since he didn’t have enough strength to walk. After extensive consultations and several weeks of testing, doctors told Frantz he had Stage IV kidney cancer. Kidney cancer is commonly referred to as the silent killer since it is often too late for treatment by the time it’s detected.
By that point, tests showed the cancer had spread to his chest, lungs, liver and bone in addition to his kidneys. The odds didn’t look good. When doctors told Frantz he might be eligible to participate in a very promising immunotherapy clinical trial, he jumped at it.
In the early spring of 2016, he began to receive three powerful, “life-giving” immunotherapy infusions every two weeks. Immunotherapy is relatively new and super charges the body’s immune system to fight only cancer cells.
In late May, doctors removed his diseased kidney along with a very large tumor. Once Frantz finished the initial infusions, he started maintenance immunotherapy infusions, which he now receives every two weeks. Tests currently show the lung, liver and chest tumors shrinking dramatically.
“Those immunotherapy infusions gave me my life back, and they’re slowly but surely destroying the cancer,” said Frantz. “The scariest thing was when my doctor told me if I had come to MD Anderson three weeks later, it would have been too late to get on the clinical trial.”
Co-workers step up to help during time of need
For Frantz, faith – and the love and support from his wife Dixie – got him through the last year. Frantz and his wife have been married for 44 years and have three grown children, one grandson and another on the way. One of their daughters has cerebral palsy and lives at home with them since she requires 24/7 care. She is 32 years old but has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old. She is wheelchair-bound yet the “biggest hugging machine you’ll ever meet.”
“When I received the cancer diagnosis, I knew it wasn’t anything worse than the burden and challenge my daughter faces every day,” said Frantz.
“My colleagues at Shell Deer Park went above and beyond to assist my family as I got weaker, and they helped my wife care for our daughter – no questions asked,” he said. “I was inspired by their compassion for me and my family. It’s difficult to put into words how much it meant to know they had my back through the good and the bad.”
Wife refuses to give up without a fight
If Frantz had to name a hero during his battle with cancer, it’s definitely his wife. She has never missed a doctor’s appointment and keeps everyone – including the physicians – on their toes.
“Even in my darkest hour, she refused to give up and remained upbeat at all times,” said Frantz. “She’s a beautiful person inside and out, and I will never take her for granted.”
As Frantz looks ahead to the future, he looks forward to a better world – one without cancer and one where he and his wife can spend quality time with their loved ones.
Beauty doesn’t equal perfection
“I have walked down the hallway of death earlier this year and almost through that final door. I’m not afraid of it any longer, but I cherish life like never before. It is so precious,” said Frantz.
He paused for a second before adding, “I’ve learned that we can all do a better job of embracing people for who they are and acknowledging the unique gifts they bring to the table – as opposed to focusing on what they’re not. Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.”