Travis Garski shares his journey of survival with testicular cancer, an experience he describes, in part, as a kind of "ego-death." After a snowboarding vacation, he went to the doctor suspecting something might be wrong. He then traversed the nine weeks of chemo to reach good health and a new outlook on life. Listen to his story.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=60247613)
Don’t Give Up on Testicular Cancer
Episode #6 – Go to the Doctor – How I Survived Testicular Cancer
testicular cancer, cancer, chemotherapy, Travis Garski, Max Mallory Foundation, cancer survivors, urologist, Joyce Lofstrom
00:08 Joyce Lofstrom
Welcome to Don't Give Up on Testicular Cancer where cancer survivors, caregivers, and others touched by cancer share their stories. The Max Mallory Foundation presents this podcast in honor and memory of Max Mallory, who died at age 22 from testicular cancer. I am your host, Joyce Lofstrom, a young adult and adult cancer survivor, and Max's mom. Thanks for joining me today.
This is Joyce and my guest is Travis Garski. And Travis is a testicular cancer survivor. He also knew my son Max through college. So just kind of that connection there as well.
I want to just start, Travis, and first say, thank you, for taking the time to join me today. Now, just kind of talk about your cancer journey. What happened, and just, what happened and when?
01:02 Travis Garski
Sure, yeah, thanks for having me on.
So back at the beginning of 2019, I was actually, it's interesting, I had this pain in my left testicle for a while, and I was coming to conclusions about like everything else, but what I feared it would be, right.
Yeah, it's just kind of like a human nature sort of thing to do. You don't you kind of want to; you don't want to expect the worst. But after about a few weeks of just pain and actually growth, it was like inflammation around my left testicle.
It got so unbearable that I decided that, hey, this doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. It actually feels like it's getting worse; I should go get it checked out. And this is actually right, right after I went on vacation to Colorado. I'm an avid snowboarder, so I went out there to snowboard by myself. But even like, sitting down and like going down the hill or the mountain, it was just too painful.
Immediately, when I got back in January, I decided to go to primary care to see, you know, what I should do next? No inclination that it was cancer at that time. I still thought it was something like maybe like, some sort of STI or something. I was seeing somebody at the time. So yeah, you really don't know, and at least, even STI seems like it'd be better than what it really, really was, you know?
I went to go see a primary care doctor. And it's kind of a blur about it because it all happens at once. You probably know this. You know better than anyone is, like the whole experience of going through cancer just becomes one lump, you know, part of your life.
So, I got the news in kind of an unorthodox way. I felt like the doctor was, this was the first time they ever told somebody that they had cancer. And it kind of felt like this is my moment sort of situation. Right? Which I didn't appreciate because it's somebody's life that you're like, even though it's a very good outcome. For most people with testicular cancer, it's a 97% survival rate. In terms of the type of cancer I had, it was still a very strange way of presenting it.
But once I got to see my urologist, which is the person that specializes and actually did the orchiectomy on me, the removal of the testicle. That's when it kind of sunk in. I sat down with him and my brother. My brother actually came with me because we got a random call one day after getting an ultrasound on my, my scrotum. They're like, you need to come in; we need to talk.
And at that point, it's like I was starting to get anxiety. I knew something was going on. And my brother did too. So, he came with me, and we sat down with my urologist. And that's when I got the actual like, confirmation that, hey, this is non-seminoma. I think it was stage two, testicular cancer. The staging, as far as like mainstream staging is that doesn't really tell the whole story on whether it's survivable or not. There are stage four cancer survivors out there, plenty. It just, you know, staging is how far it's spread into your other organs.
04:26 Joyce Lofstrom
You know, I think what you say is interesting, because I know you went to, you know, your primary care physician first. We had a similar experience in the ER department. And it's not until you get to a specialist that can really explain it and help you with it. So, I'm glad that you were able to get to that person, your urologist So, and it seemed
04:51 Travis Garski
They were more practiced, and I think that's very important when you're relaying that information to another human being. I know it takes time to get that practice of releasing that news. But there's a certain way of releasing that news. And I think I just feel like that person has done it enough and kind of knows, like human emotion, kind of like what people go through when they first hear it. And he left the room and let us, you know, cry it out a little bit. And he kind of knew exactly how it was going to go. So that made me feel better being in his care.
05:22 Joyce Lofstrom
Of course, I know with Max, they said, “Well, you have cancer. It's spread all over. And you're going to be here for a long time.” And I just thought, really, I mean, there's, that's not the way to explain it, as you're saying. It does take practice. And so anyway, so now you have the diagnosis, what happened next?
05:45 Travis Garski
Immediately, we went into action because being somewhat of a kind of like a technical, scientific mind myself, I like reading scientific journals. I like learning up about things. And like, if there's like a specific specialty, I like to take in all the knowledge I can. So especially when it's in your own body. Okay, this is actually happening in me right now, I might as well kind of learn the ins and outs of it.
I knew that we just had to take action right away. And full disclosure, I actually used to work at a lung cancer nonprofit. So, I already had, I think, that alone kind of helped save my life, because that alone gave me knowledge of, you know, surgery. Most people don't know surgery is the top procedure for getting rid of cancer, if you can find the mass before it spreads, and remove it, and you have the ability to do surgery. Most people don't, because it's on an organ that they can't really remove anyway. But if you have the ability to remove it, your chances of survival are significantly increased.
I knew time was of the essence. So as weird as it was, I was like, let's chop this thing off. And let's get going. They're like, well, that's the right attitude you have. Time is of the essence; stuff is moving inside of you even though it's a little. I don't know, I think non-seminoma, I think they said was a quicker onset or a quicker version of this type of cancer. But yeah, time was of the essence.
I quickly had the orchiectomy procedure; they removed the testicle. And I did find out that it did spread into my lymph nodes in my abdomen.
At that point I had, they actually gave me the choice, which was nice as well. They said you can either go through nine weeks of chemo and after that, decide if it's still there or not, then you can do surgery. Or you can go right for surgery, and it gives you an even greater chance of removing cancer.
And I was like, what does surgery look like? And they said, “We actually have to move the organs out of the way, make a huge incision on your stomach, and take it out from the back of your spine.” Let's try chemo first; then we can try the more invasive procedure. Thankfully, my chemotherapy saved my life.
07:59 Joyce Lofstrom
That's wonderful. So, you didn't have to do this surgery?
08:03 Travis Garski
No, no. And it's insane how this series of events happened because right before I went to Colorado on that vacation, I had a really bad case of what are they called these stones, (kidney) stones, yes.
08:18 Travis Garski
I had a horrible case of it. I actually was able to make a small maraca out of stones in my kidney. And they took a CAT scan at that time. They were actually able to compare that CAT scan to a later CAT scan of where they saw the lymph node growing slightly. There was a four-millimeter growth in that lymph node in my abdomen.
They're like, okay, we know it's on its way up. We have to do this much chemotherapy. It's funny, the more information that these doctors have, the better the kind of plan that they're able to make. So, it really worked out for the best for me.
08:56 Joyce Lofstrom
Right. In that patient data that you have to be saving, being able to compare those two scans is really, really important. So even though those kidney stones are very painful, it was good that you had that.
09:10 Travis Garski
And I think that just goes to show that maybe this sort of scan technology that we have should be like a proper routine thing that humans have to go through. Like we have the technology, I think it's something that we should actually just start making it into a routine. You know, every year you do one scan of your body.
I know there's issues with radiation and things like that, especially with CAT scans, flowing radiation through you, but there's also MRIs that are less likely to cause complications. I think that's an important thing that people should start looking into more. I don't know really where it starts, where it ends in terms of, you know, policy and insurance and all that stuff. But I think it is it should be a normal thing that we have to go through just to make sure that we are healthy all around.
10:01 Joyce Lofstrom
I agree. I think in two of the MRIs, as you said, there's no exposure to radiation. And so, it's something to think about because we do have the technology and probably helped save your life, or at least avoid unnecessary surgery.
10:14 Travis Garski
Like I said, time is of the essence. When you have time on your side, you have a better chance of survival. And I've actually been opting into MRIs more because one, you get less radiation. And two, I'm actually allergic to the dye that they put in you for CAT scans. But I just think MRI just gives you a better picture of what's going on inside your body. I've actually just opted into that even though it's more expensive. I think it's just an investment in your health and your well-being, you know,
10:42 Joyce Lofstrom
No, I agree. I agree. I've had a few MRIs too. So, it's, it's just you know, it's a picture that is part of your medical record, and you have it. So, it's a long-term, positive effect. I think so. You had the nine weeks of chemo. And then what happened? Were you ready to go then?
11:04 Travis Garski
Yeah, actually, I worked right through my chemotherapy. I had a job that was reasonable enough to let me work from the place I was getting treatment. I was at St. Luke's Vince Lombardi Clinic on the bottom floor of the hospital. I had my laptop propped up. Some days I could crank away like tons of work. Some days, it was just, I was just too drained, especially towards the end of the week.
I had three rounds or three weeks of different regimens. So, the first week, I had all the drugs that were in the cocktail. And then I had two following weeks every Monday of bleomycin, which is a pretty intense chemotherapy drug. I think that's the one along with cisplatin that causes you to lose your hair. Yeah, yeah.
And it was intense, but I was able to; I have a high pain tolerance. But even that it was really intense, like the fatigue that you feel at the end of the day. I'm usually a happy-go-lucky guy. I love cracking jokes, and my family could just see the toll it was taking on me. And that actually hurt me the most is it seeing my family like seeing me different.
But I got through it. And that's why I'm here today. It is a brutal experience; it's nothing to take lightly. But having a positive attitude throughout, throughout at all, which it does help to have a positive attitude when your outlook and your prognosis is great. I can't imagine people that are told that it's terminal, and what they have to go through what goes through their minds.
So regardless, it's going to be an intense process. Anyone listening to this that has to go through it, just you know, strap in and get ready.
Good advice. What do you think was your biggest challenge during this process?
The thing I missed the most was a sense of normalcy. Everything is just being taken away from you - from your hair to some of the little freedoms that you get because you're immunocompromised. I can't imagine people going through chemotherapy right now where they absolutely can't go out and you have politicizing of things that are benefits, that help and keep other people safe.
As someone that was and probably kind of is still is immunocompromised, it feels like all we want is a sense of normalcy. At the end of the day, you know, like we have all these little things that are being stripped from us in order to survive, albeit, you know, temporary.
But that was the biggest challenge - not being able to go out to eat at certain restaurants that I wanted to go to because I was afraid of their cleanliness. Or even be able to go on walks because I was so tired and fatigued and my muscles were just not up to par for going on walks, you know. I pushed through it because I knew it's healthy for me. But that was the thing I missed the most, I think, not being able to see my friends at work. There were a lot of things.
14:10 Joyce Lofstrom
Those connections that we have, I think, are so important as you mentioned. Taking a walk is so normal, and we do take it for granted. And I think that's an important point Travis about the sense of normalcy. I'm not sure everybody thinks about that in terms of cancer, but yeah, it is something that you lose. You get it back, but it's challenging during that whole process.
So, I think it definitely made me stronger, and I think a different person. There's a bit of an ego-death when you go through something like this even though like again, if even though my prognosis was great. Death is definitely on the top of my mind when I first got that diagnosis because it was not something I was ready to cope with yet.
How old were you when you were diagnosed if I can ask?
15:00 Travis Garski
I would have been 27.
Okay, thank you.
Yeah. Yeah, I turn I think I turned 27 in December 2018.
15:13 Joyce Lofstrom
You mentioned your family as being there with you. Who was your support group? Who helped you get through this?
15:20 Travis Garski
My mom, my dad, and my younger brother and my younger sister. And then I also had an awesome group of friends and, you know, aunts and uncles that were able to sit with me through some of my treatments and bring me care packages. I had friends from work.
I actually had a GoFundMe that I had a surprising group of people contribute to, which I can't thank enough, that helped me get through getting my deductible met, so I can have everything covered for the rest of the year. It all worked out great. And I had a huge support group that I didn't even know existed. And I kind of have created ties again, since the last time I talked with them. S
16:00 Joyce Lofstrom
You know, you mentioned the cost and the insurance. And I've talked to at least one other young man who went through what you have done. He said the same thing about not knowing what insurance would cover. How are you going to take care of that expense? And then the other thing, I'm wondering, too, did you want or was it hard to find other young men who had had this type of cancer, just to talk to? Or was that something of interest? I'm just interested in your opinion on that.
16:31 Travis Garski
It was something of interest to me. But like I mentioned, things were going so fast that I didn't even have time to, you know, stop and I actually know anything about it. I did go to some forums and websites of discussions going on.
But again, things are happening so fast that you just focused on yourself at the moment. But I did find myself perusing online forums, and, you know, testicular cancer, nonprofit pages that have more information about what type of cancer I had.
And I always kept going back to that survival rate number, just kept looking at that, and be like, okay, that makes me feel better. But also, there's that 3%, that doesn't make it. You think about that. Then, you know, at some point, you’ve got to kind of distance yourself from that, and just live your life day to day, because that's really what it's all about, you know?
17:27 Joyce Lofstrom
Well, yeah. And I think what's hard to remember too, with cancer, is that it's individual. So how you get through it and survive will be totally different than another person. I think that's when you read the information online, that's hard to remember sometimes because it's just a statistic.
17:43 Travis Garski
There are other elements in your body that you probably don't even know about, like blood pressure and things with your heart. A lot of people don't understand that people can die from a certain cause, like a heart attack while they're going through chemotherapy. And they can mark that as being the cause of death is this, but it's also this, you know what I mean? There could be things going inside your body that chemotherapy will augment or complicate, or just cancer itself can augment or complicate. There’s a lot going through your mind, and statistics really don't tell the whole picture all the time.
18:21 Joyce Lofstrom
That's true. I agree with that, too. And it's, it's very individualized, what happens. I also like what you said about having a positive attitude. I know that just it makes a huge difference in life in general. But, especially on a cancer journey, I think if you can you, the patient, can achieve that, it really does help. It's hard some days, but I think it's really important to do.
18:46 Travis Garski
It’s kind of eye-opening because once your life is kind of shortened by that much, you start to do things a little differently, have a different outlook on life like I mentioned.
It's a little bit of ego death. You try to live in the moment, instead of worrying about “I got to get this done in how many days or whatever,” you know. I'm kind of thankful that I went through that sort of suffering to get to where I'm at today because I feel like now, I'm more comfortable in my own skin. And I know that I'm lucky enough to be able to live the rest of my life with that sort of outlook. I’m really, it’s weird to say, but I’m kind of thankful that I went through what I did and kind of opened my eyes to the support I have around me and I appreciate things more.
I don't know if you saw any of that with Max, you know, during his time. But I know he already had an awesome outlook on life. I think I hung out with him a couple of times, especially at gaming conventions and stuff. And he was, he's basically doing what he wanted to do, which was awesome to see. It was kind of an inspiration.
19:56 Joyce Lofstrom
You know, he did have a positive attitude, and he had plans as any young person would when you get out of school and or get to the job or career that you want. And I think, you know, we all thought everything would be fine. And we would get through this, and we were positive.
So, I think it's just, life doesn't always work out the way you think it is going to. But yeah, he did. I think he also did a lot more research on cancer he had then than we might have. We did as parents look, you know, try to understand, because he had non-seminoma. And he had 100% choriocarcinoma, which I've learned is very aggressive. And so, yeah, it's just, I don't know what else to say. But yeah, I think the positive aspect of life, he definitely had that. And he loved those gaming conventions. I'm glad to know you were there, too. I remember him talking about those.
20:56 Travis Garski
Yeah, yeah. The last time I saw him was a bit bash in Chicago, right after college, I think. Yeah, just knowing that he had plans, and he was never able to kind of reach them kind of makes me feel that is also an inspiration, like, you know, live your life live on and don't let cancer kind of hold you back. Because it's, it's just, I saw it as kind of like, my prognosis is good, this is a sickness, I got to get through it. And hopefully, everything turns out in the end, but I want to keep living each day, as if, you know, nothing could happen.
21:34 Joyce Lofstrom
And that's, yeah, that's a great attitude, as I said, in general. But it sounds like that's a great segue into my question about what can you tell us about what you're doing now, Travis? Just, how's life? What are you doing?
21:49 Travis Garski
I got a new job, now, since I last worked at that place that let me work during chemo, I still keep in great contact with all those guys I worked with, just because they supported me through a difficult part of my life. But I moved on because there are people at that job that I also didn't like.
Then I got to a point where like, I don't know if you also saw this either. but you get to a point where you just don't care what other people think about you either. I know what I need to do to make my life better. I know what I need to do to make myself happy. So, I'm going to do that. And if you don't like it as an individual, you don't like me being happy, then I'm going to go find another place that does. So, I got to a point where that happened.
And I just feel I do have plans, but I'm also living each day as if like, you know, if I spend a day being lazy, so be it. That's my day. Like there's nobody out there telling me that I should do otherwise. And that should never be anyone's prerogative. You shouldn't have people telling you what to do with your life, your life is how you want it to be.
That's how I'm living each day. I got a new house, immediately. I got a 1974 Dodge Charger, like. Yeah, it's a midlife crisis that's not really a crisis. It's just like, I'm just doing things that boost my serotonin level and make me happy and smile and have fun every day.
23:21 Joyce Lofstrom
Yes, I remember that car, I'll date myself, but I do remember that car. And I think what you said about not caring about what other people think, that is so important in life. You're lucky to have achieved it so young, speaking from someone that it took a while to get to that point. But I think that's, yeah, it's true. Just do what makes you happy. And then day by day,
23:44 Travis Garski
But not to negate from having empathy for other people that are probably suffering way more than I have. Like, I was, it's weird to say it, but I was lucky to have the type of cancer I had. There are people out there that, you know, Max included, you have, you know, a lot of others, just normal people that...I have a friend that has a father that's diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and it sounds like it's a stamp on that, you know, with the time date on it. But that really just should tell you like, even if your life is probably a little bit shorter, go out there and just enjoy each day.
24:23 Joyce Lofstrom
Yeah, you know, I've survived breast cancer and thyroid cancer, and I was lucky in that what I had was very treatable as well. So, you know, it's, again, back to that topic of it being individualized in terms of how you survive or what you have to do for treatment. So, my last question I want to ask you about Travis is, what advice would you have for any young man that has testicular cancer or might think that he has it? What advice would you give them?
24:51 Travis Garski
There's a lot of advice I could give. I think the most important ones are, one, ask as many frickin’ questions as you feel that you need to know to get the full picture of what your life is going to be like for the next how many months, days, years. Whatever, whatever drugs they give you in the hospital, whatever, you know, plans that they provide you to get through it, ask them why they thought of that.
Your doctors are there for you, their resources for you. Your nurses are there for you. You're paying out the butt for all that. I have the right to ask for all that information. You have the right to ask for, you know, scans that you have done. It's an investment in your body. This is your vessel to get through, you know, the next how many years you're living, hopefully until you're past 80. It's an investment into your body. You should definitely pay close attention to it.
And speaking of that, your body will tell you when something is wrong. If you have pains, if you have sores, if you have things that just seem out of the ordinary, listen to your body because it is telling you something.
25:58 Joyce Lofstrom
Okay, that's great advice for them, for any of us. So, thanks so much for taking the time to join me today and just stay in touch.
26:08 Travis Garski
Yeah, thanks for having me on. I'm happy to help and provide any sort of insight that, you know, others out there might be going through the same thing. I hope they get through it, stay strong and your attitude is a big part of the healing process. So, keep that in mind.
26:22 Joyce Lofstrom
That's a great way to end our program. So, thanks, Travis.
26:25 Travis Garski
26:28 Joyce Lofstrom
Thanks, so much for joining me today on Don't Give Up on Testicular Cancer from the Max Mallory Foundation. We have a website, and it's at maxmalloryfoundation.com, where you can learn more about testicular cancer, donate, and also send your ideas for guests on the podcast. And for spelling, Mallory is m-a-l-l-o-r-y.
Please join me next time for Don't Give Up on Testicular Cancer.