Reporting Shane Kitzman
Pre-cancer Gary Brausen cruised through nine-mile trail races.
Pre-cancer Gary strapped on ice skates at 6:30 a.m. three days a week, competing against former college hockey players.
Pre-cancer Gary never touched a cigarette.
But that didn’t keep lung cancer from nearly killing the 50-year-old man who was more fit than most 20-somethings.
How did Gary defeat one of the deadliest forms of cancer?
He forfeited a cancer-ridden lung, and he ignored the macabre prognosis his doctor initially shared — “Get your affairs in order. Write a will. You’ll be lucky to live one to two years.”
And come Saturday morning, the Breath of Hope Lung Foundation’s poster boy – you may have heard his voice on ESPN1500 spreading the word – will compete yet again in the seventh-annual Twin Cities Run/Walk.
According to the foundation, lung cancer takes more lives than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined, and only 15 percent of those diagnosed make it past five years.
Just like Gary, about 10 to 15 percent of those diagnosed have never smoked.
Still unsure just how lethal lung cancer can be?
Gary missed the start of last year’s 5K because the group photo for lung cancer survivors was set at 9:15 a.m. — the race started at 9 a.m. … the thought of a survivor being healthy enough to compete in the run hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind. (This year, those start times have been appropriately swapped).
The husband and father of two teenage boys ardently believes there was a purpose in his brush with mortality via lung cancer.
“I want to make people more aware of the seriousness of the disease — how deadly it is — and how non-smokers can get it as well as smokers,” he said.
It all started – with a cough
The Falcon Heights native graduated from the University of Minnesota with an engineering degree and has a master’s degree in software engineering from the University of St. Thomas. The Bloomington resident currently leads a team of developers at Seagate Technology.
In early 2011, he’d developed a nasty cough. Knowing how serious Gary takes his fitness, his doctor didn’t think it was serious.
Even after a CT scan of Gary’s chest, the pulmonologist actually thought it could be cancer, but dismissed the idea after looking at the healthy and lean Gary.
However, a biopsy confirmed the inconceivable.
“It was 3:30 in the afternoon and the doctor called and said, ‘I have some bad news for you Mr. Brausen, you have lung cancer.’ I just fell to the floor. I was in pieces.”
Losing his left lung
The lone bright spot was the cancer hadn’t spread and Gary was cleared for surgery to excavate his diseased left lung. Because the right lung is usually bigger, Gary ended up retaining 60 percent of his original lung capacity.
If cancer had been found in other parts of his body, the operation would have been impossible, and his survival rate would have plummeted.
Gary described the procedure with one word – brutal.
“My thoracic surgeon said to me after I recovered a bit in the hospital, ‘Congratulations Mr. Brausen, you survived the most painful surgery we do at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.’”
Even after a successful surgery, doctors told Gary and his wife, Rosey, that they had a year — if they were lucky.
“We decided right then we weren’t going to listen anymore,” Rosey said.
Combining Western medicine, green tea and spiritual wisdom
“We worked on his emotional and physical state,” Rosey said. “We worked hard on reading what would be best to put into his body … we went to scripture and took healing in that God is the author of our beginning day and our end.”
For Gary, green tea, olive oil and no sweets became the motto.
Rosey also found that the spice turmeric, popular in India, is a natural anti-inflammatory that combats cancer in one’s body. Gary continues to consume 1/2 teaspoon a day.
Though 12 weeks of chemo didn’t take Gary’s hair, it nearly took everything else.
“It was absolutely hell on earth,” he said. “The drugs I had were some of the harshest chemicals they gave. They kill everything in its path, bringing you to the edge of dying.”
At his lowest point, the man who just months earlier could rep 65-pound dumbbells was unable to lift 5-pound weights.
Recovery and the road back to work
Radiation ended in October 2011, and by mid-November he was back at work part time. After getting back to full time in January 2012, his life has revolved around the “recurrence clock.”
The second Gary lost his lung, a two-year timetable was set in place and if he could stay cancer free for 48 months, his survival rate would skyrocket.
After four bi-annual check-ups, Gary appears to have gone toe-to-toe with lung cancer and became one of the lucky 16 percent who live to tell about it.
“I’m extremely grateful to say the least,” he said. “I feel guilty sometimes, like I’m the sole survivor of a plane crash. Lung cancer is that deadly.”
A life now devoted to eliminating lung cancer
The man who spent a quarter century playing pick-up hockey with his buddies on the Lake of the Isles is retiring from the game for the right reasons.
He’s reorganizing his life with a focus on faith, family and friends – he’ll spend more time with his 15-year-old son Bennett and 13-year-old son Alexander, especially.
And he fully owns the new poster boy role.
“I’m committed to a Breath of Hope and I’m hoping to be on their board this fall,” he said.
And on Saturday at the Run/Walk, he’ll have a chance to harken back to the pre-cancer Gary.
It may not be a treacherous 9-mile trail race, but post-cancer Gary will assuredly have no problem completing a 5K.