Facing — and beating — a rare spinal cancer gave George West a new perspective on life.
It seems like a strange thing to say, and he knows it.
"Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me," according to George West.
Of course there was fear at first. He received the stunning news in 2007, two days after turning 42. A tumor was growing in his spine.
After a difficult medical journey, West returned to his wife, two small sons and career. But the perils he and his family faced, and his overwhelming sense of gratitude, gave him a new view of life.
"Before my diagnosis, I was caught up in my law practice in trying to provide for the very best for my family, but I also was neglecting them without even realizing it," he says.
"Had I never gotten the cancer, I probably would be the same workaholic and not paying attention to the three most important things in my life. Now, I always try to take the time to spend time. You just never know when life is going to give you that tap on the shoulder."
There's something else he now believes: There are no coincidences in life. Everything happens for a reason.
For instance, doctors discovered his tumor while scanning for an unrelated bulged disc in his neck. On the edge of the film, they saw the tumor — a growth between West's shoulder blades.
If the rare cancer had been found later, after symptoms appeared, his prognosis would have been bleak.
Local neurosurgeons in Las Vegas, where he lives, had little experience with this type of tumor. However, as a Los Angeles native, West knew exactly where to turn.
"When you grow up in Southern California," he says, "City of Hope is the place you go when you have cancer."
At City of Hope, he met experienced neurosurgeon Mike Y. Chen, M.D., Ph.D., who told him about the risks of the complex surgery, including possible paralysis. But Chen’s quiet confidence instilled hope.
Along with radiation oncologist Eric H. Radany, M.D., Ph.D., Chen formed a treatment plan.
Chen would take out 95 percent of the tumor, leaving behind only the tissue riskiest to remove. Then Radany and his team would blast the remaining cancer with radiation therapy to shrink it. The tumor was slow-growing, and they hoped that by the time it began to grow again, new treatments would be available.
After recovering from his 10-hour surgery and undergoing rehabilitation, West underwent eight weeks of targeted radiotherapy that sculpted beams to the shape of the remaining growth, avoiding healthy tissue. West faced few side effects beyond mild fatigue.
At the end of his treatment, West and his doctors encountered a surprise.
The remaining 5 percent of the tumor was gone.
"I had a remarkable result that wasn’t even contemplated by my doctors," West says.
Just past the five-year anniversary of his diagnosis, West continues to feel deeply grateful. He emails his doctors on birthdays and anniversaries. "I just need to keep reminding them that the fine work they do on a daily basis matters, and that it does have a profound affect on the lives of their patients," he says.
"And not just for me. I can’t imagine not being here for my boys. For every father they save, they pay it forward ten times, because by saving a parent, they also save a family."
More Faces of Hope >>