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June / July 2019
Charting a Course Through Terminal Cancer The Dehney Family Faces the Unimaginable with Faith & Family
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Charting a Course Through Terminal Cancer The Dehney Family Faces the Unimaginable with Faith & Family By Marcus Hoffman
Local Piranha coach George Dehney was enjoying a banquet for his middle school football team when his life took a dramatic turn. George says that earlier in the night he was having fun and enjoying the opportunity he had to celebrate with his team. Both in 2017 and 2018 they were the Eastern Shore AYF Bayside Champions, as well as making it to the State Championship two years in a row. That previous year, they had made it all the way to the AYF Nationals in Florida, “the furthest a Piranha team from this tiny little island had ever made it.” At the banquet, George was called up to honor members of his team and to give a speech. “I had this great coming-of-age story I had put together,” he explained to me. “It was really good, and I was excited to share it with the team.” Soon after George began speaking, however, things quickly took a turn for the unexpected. He began mixing up individual words and mismatching entire sentences until he “couldn’t even remember his own name,” all within the course of the hour.
“I came to this event excited for myself and for the kids I coach, but pretty soon I didn’t even know a single one of their names,” George explained to me… laughing, seeing the humor in the terrifying situation. George found himself ushered off stage by his concerned family and friends and rushed to the hospital in a daze. Even though he had awakened that morning feeling fine, something was now clearly not right with George. Because of the symptoms he was exhibiting and the sudden onset of them, George’s wife thought he was having a stroke. When they arrived at the hospital however, scans would reveal something potentially even worse. George had a brain tumor growing on his left parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for language and organization. The doctors said swelling from the tumor was causing George to suddenly lose control of his language skills. Not only did George have a brain tumor, but he had one of the most aggressive varieties called glioblastoma. This variety of cancer grows more quickly than other types of brain tumors. It also has a high chance of coming back even if successfully removed through surgery. George’s wife, Aimee, explained to me that the disease has a mean survival rate of 14-16 months. This means that within that period of time, half of the people diagnosed with the disease will pass away. After that, the survival rate only continues to get lower, as the cancer has an extremely high risk of returning. With grade IV glioblastoma, the type George has, the five year survival rate is less than five percent; while surviving glioblastoma is not unheard of, it is rare. Within a day, George had gone from being seemingly healthy, to facing a potentially terminal illness. George and
his wife say he spent the day after the diagnosis in a state of despair. “After the initial shock had worn off, I went into a state of defeat. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me.” In this depressed state George compared himself to someone being forced to leave a party early, knowing everyone there would continue to enjoy themselves. He worried about the future, about his wife and two children, about his football team and about his community. Just 48 hours earlier, George believed himself to believe in good health, and now he had potentially terminal brain cancer. While he spent the first day in mourning and worry, George says his eyes popped open the next day, two days after the diagnosis, with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor. “For some reason, when I woke up the next day everything just clicked. I realized that I’m going to have to take each day as a treat and a blessing. Things may be harder now than they were before in a lot of ways, but in some ways, they’re also better. Instead of having to leave for work early in the morning, I get to make the kids breakfast and lunch everyday… once I developed this positive mind set, I no longer had any fears. I was just able to enjoy each day for what it was, in the moment.”
elieve it or not, this diagnosis was not his first experience with a brain tumor. Twenty-five years earlier, George’s father was diagnosed with a similar, albeit less aggressive, type of brain tumor. An avid sailor, George’s father had to consider whether or not he would choose to seek treatment or to go sailing in the Caribbean. While there was basically no chance of survival without treatment, the treatments for cancer such as chemotherapy and radiation are incredibly harsh on the body, leading some to forgo treatment to enjoy their last bit of time on earth. George’s dad ended up choosing the treatment, hoping to try to fight his illness. Even with the treatments, he passed away in the span of less than three months. George says that his father’s illness, decision, and passing were among the first things he began to think about after the initial shock and despair wore off from his own diagnosis. Life can be over in the blink of an eye, and it is important to not leave this world with as few regrets as possible. An avid sailor himself, George began to make plans to sail the Caribbean with his wife and his children, Tommy and Gracie; to do what his father did not have the chance to do when he had brain cancer. George had sailed
the Caribbean before himself, but he had never had the opportunity to sail it with his kids. “I really want to see them sail the Caribbean for the same type of reason you get excited to give your kids gifts on Christmas,” he explained to me, “I’m just so excited to see the look in their eyes when they see it for the first time in person. It’s really something else.” Luckily for George, he doesn’t have to choose between being treated for the cancer or enjoying the Caribbean, having found a way to work the vacation time into his treatment plan. Just like his father, George has been sailing his entire life, having “taken up the helm for the first time at four years old.” At a young age, he began sailing on his own, when his dad would let him and his friends sail freely on Lake Massabesic. George introduced Aimee to sailing, and since then it has been something their whole family would do together. “We started boating with our kids since they’ve been in car seats. We would strap them in and sail around the Bay, and now because they’ve grown up with it, they love it.” Last year the Dehney family purchased a nice boat of their own, a 35 foot Catalina called “New Horizons” harbored at Mears Marina. Remembering his father’s decision to not sail the Caribbean, George wanted to find a way to make it happen before his cancer started affecting him more strongly. Flying down to the Caribbean and then renting boats for the week can be expensive, especially when you also consider the cost of medical treatment and George’s forced early retirement from work. The community heard of George’s story and began planning a fundraiser benefit to send him and his family to sail the British Virgin Islands. If what the doctors had said was true, George did not have a lot of time to make this dream come true. George had no idea what state he would be in by next year, how fast the cancer might or might not progress and what might happen to his body. This family adventure was something they would have to do quickly.
eorge was diagnosed with a brain tumor on that Sunday night honoring the 13 U Piranhas. By Wednesday of that same week, he was having surgery to have the tumor removed, and by Friday he was discharged from the hospital. “One week earlier everything was normal, and now I was waking up with my head covered in staples.” George and his wife told me that he had an initial moment of horror upon seeing the incision and staples from the surgery. “I just couldn’t believe it was me and the staples were part of my body,” he explained to me. The surgery was as successful as it could have been; the doctors say they were able to remove all the visible signs of the tumor (though microscopic parts of it may remain), and George regained the ability to speak properly. George also says he recovered from the surgery remarkably quickly, compared to others they saw at that hospital, something he partially attributes to his optimism and outlook. In the face of a potentially fatal disease, George maintains an air of courage, seemingly unafraid in the face of the unknown. He spent a brief period of despair after his initial diagnosis, but quickly regained his “lust for life.” Instead of decrying the future and what it might or might not hold for him, George looks forward to each day. George was released from the hospital just two days after his surgery due to his speedy recovery, allowing him to watch this year’s Super Bowl with friends and family. Originally a New Englander, George was excited to see his favorite team, the Patriots, play and then win the big game. George grew up playing football in New England, leading to his current love of the sport and coaching. He related to me a story about being an undersized kid trying to get onto the local Pop Warner football team. He put on three sweatshirts and filled his shoes with pennies to help make weight… and
still ended up too light. Seeing his dedication, the team allowed the undersized George to join. He passed his love of football onto his son, Tommy, which led to George coaching the local Piranhas. George now has the opportunity to assistant coach the Kent Island JV Football team. He currently helps with spring strength and conditioning training.
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s many Americans who suffer from a serious illness know, soon after you start worrying about your health, you start worrying about finances. These issues were partially exacerbated for the Dehney family, who not only wanted to be able to sail the Caribbean before George’s health potentially took a turn for the worse, but wanted to be able to address their mounting medical bills. George, who had brain surgery nearly as soon as he was diagnosed, had to quit his trade job. To help cope with the medical costs, an online donation page was started and the family found the outcome to be inspiring. Dozens of locals gave money to help the family deal with George’s medical bills, waiting for disability benefits to kick-in and to help George achieve his dream of sailing the Caribbean with his family. Some were just able to give smaller amounts, while others were able to donate 100’s of dollars, allowing the Dehney family to have a sense of peace and security during their hardship. While our county may be small, we have lots of caring folks with big hearts. “Going anywhere in town, there is an outpouring of love and concern with people coming up and asking about how George has been,” Aimee explained to me, “The response from the community has just been incredible, we are so blessed and grateful. While we cannot know all that the journey ahead has in store, one thing is certain: We have friends, such a supportive community, who have our backs. That alone is strength and encouragement.” The community also came together for George for his Caribbean-themed fundraiser at Kent Island’s Elks Lodge. The Elks Lodge donated their location, staff, and beer to help the family; Safeway donated their menu, tropical flowers, and floral designer; multiple other businesses and organizations donated prizes for an auction. So many tickets to the event were sold that the organizers had to create a wait list for people who still hoped to secure tickets to attend and support
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the struggling family. That night, George’s Piranha Football family surprised him with a beautiful portrait of George and his son Tommy. The piece was created by Scott Dorsey, who primarily creates commissioned portraits and art for high profile sports teams, including the likes of the Ravens and the Redskins. Aimee related to me that the portrait was so lifelike that their teenage son, Tommy, has turned the corner in the house only to be startled by painting thinking it was actually his Dad in person! Impressively, Piranha friends were able to keep the project under wraps and surprise George the night of the fundraiser with the unveiling of the portrait. He also received a signed mini helmet from Tom Brady, an exciting gift for a lifelong Patriots fan.
hile being diagnosed with a potentially fatal variety of cancer is extremely difficult, George has managed to maintain his positive outlook on life. He attributes this partially to his Catholic faith, something certainly to fall back onto in the face of the unknown. “I have
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a really strong connection to God,” George explained to me. “I don’t think I could do this without Him.” Faith has always been something important to the Dehney family; dedicated and active parishioners of St. Christopher’s. In a situation that would leave many paralyzed with fear, George remains confident and excited for life. Since the diagnosis, he has managed to exercise regularly and maintain a home garden, despite the fatigue brought on by his treatments. George’s fortitude in the face of the unknown is truly incredible; despite having no idea what tomorrow… or the next week… or the next month might hold for him, he remains fervent for life and optimistic for the future. “The type of brain tumor I have might be very serious,” he explained to me, “but I have some of the best doctors in the country working on me, and I have good health besides for the tumor. I think things will turn out okay.” Regardless of what happens, I think one thing is certain: George and his family will be strong enough to deal with whatever life might throw at them. If you would like to help out George and his family you can donate at their gofundme page: https:// www.gofundme.com/ george-dehneys-journey or to follow George’s story, visit: https:// caringbridge. org/visit/ georgedehneysjourney
he symptoms of brain tumors can vary based on the type of tumor and where it is located, but common symptoms can include: New onset or change in pattern of headaches Headaches that gradually become more frequent and more severe Unexplained nausea or vomiting Vision problems, such as blurred vision, double vision or loss of peripheral vision Gradual loss of sensation or movement in an arm or a leg Difficulty with balance Speech difficulties and/or Hearing problems Confusion in everyday matters and/or Personality or behavior changes Seizures, especially in someone who doesn’t have a history of seizures
When to see a doctor – Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent signs and symptoms that concern you.
isk factors to brain tumors include: -Age. Brain tumors are more common in children and older adults, although people of any age can develop a brain tumor. -Gender. In general, men are more likely than women to develop a brain tumor. However, some specific types of brain tumors, such as meningioma, are more common in women. -Home and work exposures. Exposure to solvents, pesticides, oil products, rubber, or vinyl chloride may increase the risk of developing a brain tumor. However, there is not yet scientific evidence that supports this possible link. -Family history. About 5% of brain tumors may be linked to hereditary genetic factors or conditions, including Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Turcot syndrome, and von Hippel-Lindau disease. Scientists have also found “clusters” of brain tumors within some families without a link to these known hereditary conditions. Studies are underway to try to find a cause for these clusters. Exposure to infections, viruses, and allergens. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) increases the risk of CNS lymphoma. EBV is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or “mono.” In other research, high levels of a common virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV) have been found in brain tumor tissue. The meaning of this finding is being researched. Several types of other viruses have been shown to cause brain tumors in research on animals. More data are needed to find out if exposure to infections, other viruses, or allergens increase the risk of a brain tumor in people. Of note, studies have shown that patients with a history of allergies or skin conditions have a lower risk of glioma. Race and ethnicity. In the United States, white people are more likely to develop gliomas but less likely to develop meningioma than black people. Also, people from northern Europe are more than twice as likely to develop a brain tumor as people in Japan. Head injury and seizures. Serious head trauma has long been studied for its relationship to brain tumors. Some studies have shown a link between head trauma and meningioma, but not between head trauma and glioma. A history of seizures has also been linked with brain tumors, but because a brain tumor can cause seizures, it is not known if seizures increase the risk of brain tumors, if seizures occur because of the tumor, or if anti-seizure medication increases the risk.