In October of 2014, Michael Hrabal’s wife Hazel urged him to go to the doctor for a small but persistent cough. The doctor prescribed cough medicine, but it didn’t help, and by the end of the month Michael had been diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer.
“It was kind of shocking that this little cough turned out to be cancer,” says Michael, who was 57 years old at the time and living north of New York City with Hazel and their son Andrew. This was actually his second time facing cancer; he’d been treated for kidney cancer 15 years earlier, but had remained cancer-free until the new diagnosis.
The next step was to figure out a treatment plan, but the local oncologist was not a good fit. During an appointment, the doctor acted distant and negative. He barely made eye contact while he filled out forms on his computer. “Before we got out of the meeting, my wife passed me a note that said, ‘we’re going to Sloan Kettering,’ ” Michael says.
Hazel called Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on a Friday and was told it would be a few weeks before Michael could see an oncologist there. But she was persistent and faxed page after page of her husband’s medical records and scans. Michael saw his new oncologist that Tuesday.
“When we saw the doctor, he was laughing and said, ‘Nobody gets to see me in three days,’ ” Michael says.
Going to Sloan Kettering was a turning point for Michael, both medically and emotionally. He was struck by the kindness and understanding of the staff, from doctors and nurses to food service employees and cleaners. “No matter how bad I felt, I couldn’t get angry at what was going on, because they were so kind,” he says.
Andrew, his 13-year-old son, agrees. “Everyone is so nice when we go there. The doctors always say hi to me and ask how I’m doing, and it’s just very warming. We’ve even started calling it ‘the spa.’ ”
At Sloan Kettering, Michael began chemotherapy to shrink his lung tumor. Before performing surgery to remove it, his new care team discovered another tumor in his hip. “It’s been kind of a rough ride ever since,” he says.
Michael received radiation followed by hip replacement surgery. The hip tumor came back, and he did another round of radiation. His surgeon placed a screw in the bone to help stabilize it. Michael received the drug Tarceva for eight months, but it stopped working on his lung tumors and didn’t work on his hip. His pain management team helped him find medications to relieve some of his severe bone pain while minimizing side effects.
Two months ago, at the advice of a childhood friend, Michael reached out to Cancer Commons for help deciding what to do next. Through Ask Cancer Commons, he was able to better understand his treatment options. He has now started treatment with the new drug Opdivo (nivolumab).
“It’s pretty comforting to know that my doctor and Cancer Commons are on the same page,” he says. “I feel better knowing two experts are telling me the same thing.”
Back home, Michael and his family have received tremendous support from their community. While Michael was in and out of the hospital, Andrew’s baseball coach organized a meal train, lining up community members to bring home-cooked meals to Michael’s house. Friends offered to drive him into the city for appointments. People dropped off cakes, flowers, firewood.
“Cancer stinks, but so many people came out and helped us, and it really just changed me inside,” he says. “It really just made me a better person all around.”
Michael maintains a positive attitude, especially around his family. “If I’m mean, angry, upset, cursing; they’re not going to handle it as well as they are.” Still, he makes sure not to pretend the negatives don’t exist. “When it’s serious, Andrew knows it’s serious,” he says. Michael is proud to see his son growing from the experience.
Andrew says his baseball coach has been especially supportive while his dad deals with cancer. “Sometimes he’ll call time out and come out to the mound when I’m pitching to tell me he just got a call and my dad’s doing well,” he says. “It helps me stay positive and determined.”
After baseball games, Andrew finds additional support in his family’s pets. L.T., his favorite of four cats, likes to lie on his bed and keep him company. Bella, a beagle mix, plays the role of “therapy dog” for the whole family.
When asked about advice he might give other kids who have a parent with cancer, Andrew says, “Never say you’re not doing enough to help your parents. In their minds, they are probably thinking, ‘our kid is doing so much for us,’ and it’s just going to empower them.”
Andrew recently won second place for his age group in the annual Gilda’s Club Westchester’s “It’s Always Something” Teen Essay Contest. In his essay, titled “No One Fights Alone,” he writes:
How do I feel about having a cancer parent? Some days I’m full of fearfulness that I might not have a dad anymore. Or full of sadness when he is at an appointment getting treated. Sometimes I even feel angry and ask, “why does it have to happen to my dad?” But then I realize that God wants him to do something and this is his journey. I also realize that if he didn’t have it, it just makes another boy or girl out there feel even worse that their dad has to go through it. And most days I am filled with joy that he is still here and is so strong and will never ever give up.
Update: We are deeply saddened to report that Michael passed away on July 20, 2016. It is a privilege to continue to share his story and keep his memory alive.