Athletic director determined to win his battle with brain cancer | Ascension

Athletic director determined to win his battle with brain cancer

On Jan. 29, Michael Church was driving to Wichita Heights High School for a basketball tournament when he felt a brief moment of dizziness.

Michael, the school's athletic director, shook it off and went to work. But as his heart rate elevated during the day and the right side of his body began to feel heavy, he asked the school's athletic trainer to check him out. His blood pressure was "super high," so he had his wife, Laura, take him to a local ER, where he was given a prescription and told to go home and rest. The following morning, he was so dizzy he could barely stand, so he returned to the ER, where upon further examination they found a tumor about the size and shape of a vanilla wafer in the left frontal lobe of his brain.

Two days later he had surgery to have the tumor removed, which appeared to be malignant. Two weeks later, biopsy results confirmed that it was glioblastoma, or GBM, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He went to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a second opinion.

"They told me that standard care was my best path forward and that I could do that in Wichita," says Michael, who returned home planning to do more than just reach the 18-month average life expectancy for a patient with GBM.

With the support of "the largest team of prayer warriors ever assembled," oncologist Jeremy Deutch, MD, and the care team at Ascension Via Christi Cancer Center, he was going to beat his disease.

And with that mindset, he began gearing up for the fight of his life.

Round two

The 42-year-old former college wrestler had never experienced any serious health issues. However, he was heavier than he had ever been before. So before he even started treatment, he changed his diet and began walking two to four miles a day.

"It was like I was in training," says Michael, who added in two to three miles of running and 20 to 25 minutes of yoga a day to his daily regime while undergoing six weeks of radiation therapy and oral chemotherapy and lost 21 pounds.

As a result, he says, "I am closer to God and family than I have ever been and I am in better shape physically and mentally than I have ever been."

He credits his faith in God, radiation oncologist Salman Hasan, DO, and the team at the Ascension Via Christi Cancer Center for helping him stay positive.

"Dr. Hasan was my first win," says Michael. "He told me, 'This is a tough disease, so we are going to treat it aggressively so that if it comes back in two to three years we will know how to treat it better.' He was the first person to acknowledge that I might still be around."

He says that Dr. Hasan's mix of honesty and optimism was what he needed to continue enjoying life with his wife of 12 years and 8-year-old son, Kendric.

"My goal is to grow old with my wife and watch my son grow up and get married," says Michael, who, although aware of the grim prospects for patients with his disease, appreciates having a care team that fully supports that goal. "They are the most uplifting, kind, gentle and funny people in the world to me. I'm going to kind of miss them when my radiation is over."

Another round down

On Monday, April 18, that phase of treatment came to an end. Michael left the Ascension Via Christi Cancer Center the same way he has for the past six weeks: Running out of the building like a champion, with Christian rock music playing on Bluetooth speaker and his palms raised to the heavens.

But first he asked the team to gather around him in a circle so that he might offer a prayer of gratitude, followed by hugs for each member of his care team.

Then he and Laura made their way to the lobby, where it wasn't just the staff and other patients cheering him as he exited the building. Laura had organized a surprise gathering of Michael's family, friends and coworkers just outside the Cancer Center's front door.

Michael, whose plans included a return to work the following day, will have a month off of treatment before starting the next round of oral chemotherapy. He also will be closely monitored by his medical oncologist for signs of cancerous activity. Still, he remains fully confident in his Wichita care team and grateful for the tremendous support he's received from family, friends, church and school.

For Michael, having cancer has provided an unexpected gift.

"I get to live my life with more clarity," he says, living each day with an added sense of appreciation and a determination to live each day to its fullest, whether that's a few weeks or 40 years. "That's in God's hands."