Ryan Klee says getting cancer when he was 19 has turned him into the person he is today, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Klee, the public relations director for Lenz, Inc., shatters whatever image you might have about surviving testicular cancer. The 30-year-old isn't shy about talking, even joking, about his experience.
"Know what my favorite pen is," he quips. "A Uniball."
Klee's company is sponsoring the 19th Magic of Life Celebration for Cancer Survivors, to be held on the Decatur Square on Oct. 1 from noon – 3 p.m. Cancer survivors such as Klee can celebrate conquering the disease and compare stories with other survivors.
Attendees will get lunch, hear live music performed by The Backyard Birds — a British Invasion cover band — and enjoy a variety of other activities. Anyone interested in attending the event should register online at www.molfi.org before Thursday.
All cancer survivors receive free admission. Admission for guests is $10 per person and includes food. Registration is limited and the event is rain or shine.
Such events help survivors, Klee says. After his treatments were over, he really had no clue about what to expect next.
"I didn't know how my life would be changed," Klee recalled. At past Magic of Life celebrations, he met people with stickers announcing they were 30-, 40- and 50-year survivors.
"I was so impressed by these people. It's just so moving; it gives you such hope," Klee said. "If all these people can survive, you'll be OK."
For Klee, cancer came as a perplexing shock. As a baseball player at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., Klee exercised, ate right and took care of his body.
"One day, I felt hard knot on one of my testicles, and I knew it wasn’t part of my testicles," Klee said.
Baseball players are often mocked for adjusting their crotches, but Klee says, "Actually, all that grabbing probably saved my life."
When the knot got painful, he told his mother he needed to go to the doctor, and visited his father's urologist.
"As soon as he felt it, his face changed," Klee said. He was dispatched to get the knot scanned. After working the night shift stocking shelves at the Winn Dixie, he came home for dinner and his folks told him to call the doctor.
"I was 19, and I'm still thinking I'm invincible," he said.
A biopsy revealed the tumor's cells were non-seminoma, which is the more aggressive of two forms of testicular cancer cells.
He thought of Lance Armstrong, the world's most famous testicular cancer survivor.
Klee thought, "this guy is a dad."
Treatment options included watchful waiting, chemotherapy or surgery. Klee's cancer was in the early stage. He chose surgery because he wanted to get back to playing baseball.
"This cancer is a young man's disease," Klee said. Most victims are between 15 and 35, and Klee has met 16-year-olds with testicular cancer. Fortunately, the cure rate is 90 to 95 percent, he said.
After surgery removed his testicle and the tumor, Klee had to go under the knife again. Surgeons cut open his abdomen, peeled back his abdominal muscles and other organs to remove 30 lymph nodes, four or five of which were cancerous. He recalls the helpless feeling of having 30 staples holding the skin of his torso together. He missed the first few weeks of his sophomore year of college.
Teachers were cooperative and a determined Klee brushed aside his coach's suggestion to redshirt his sophomore season. He played in the last game of fall baseball season and then the spring season. He continued to get checkups every three months.
But he'd changed.
"My priorities had shifted," Klee recalls. He transferred to the University of Florida and tried out for the baseball team as a walk-on, but didn't make it.
In his junior year, though, the cancer returned. Chemotherapy was the only option. He got the news a few weeks before finals in the fall semester. He postponed treatments until after finals, which he struggled through.
Then began four months of chemo, with Klee brushing aside his mother's suggestion that he postpone college.
"I wanted to keep as normal a schedule as possible," Klee said.
A week after his first cycle of chemo, his long hair started to fall out. Klee called a buddy to help him shave his head. Eventually, he lost all his hair, even his eyebrows.
"I felt like crap for awhile," Klee said. "I turned a different color every day."
The chemo didn't make him sterile, he said, "but I have some frozen Ryans in Florida."
Twice, he experienced reactions so serious he had to be taken to the emergency room.
"One day I had a breakdown. It started hitting me. It was a crappy, gray, rainy day, and I started crying, I was feeling so down," Klee confesses. "I pulled over and called my mom. I couldn't get hold of her."
He eventually dropped some classes, but finished his degree in four-and-a-half years, earning a bachelor's in telecommunications.
His last day of chemotherapy was April 1, 2002. Next April, he celebrates his 10-year anniversary.
"It's unproductive to ask, 'Why me?' " Klee said. "I wouldn't change a thing.
"Nobody wants to have cancer, but this experience helped me become the person I am today. I try not to stress about little things.
"I'm a goofball. I laugh a lot. I don't let things bother me," Klee said. He said he owns a house and has a wonderful girlfriend.
"There's no use stressing about things you can't control," he said. "It's OK to be mad a times, but the key is dealing with it and moving on and not letting little things control you."
MOLF has been holding inspirational “Magic of Life” events for cancer survivors for almost 20 years. Volunteers are also needed for this event. Anyone interested in volunteering during the Celebration for Cancer Survivors can sign up by going to www.molfi.org and filling out the online volunteer form.
Event sponsors include J. Smith Lanier & Co., Lenz Inc., Georgia Cancer Specialists and the accounting firm Babush, Neiman, Kornman, and Johnson, LLP.
The Magic of Life Foundation celebrates cancer survivors, educates those touched by the cancer experience, and offers support through an inspiring volunteer program. Their services enhance cancer survivorship and quality of life from diagnosis, through treatment, and in the years following completion of cancer care. The Magic of Life Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and as such, depends on the generosity and support of the community to provide funding for our programming. Tax deductible donations can be made sent to: The Magic of Life Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 80337, Atlanta, GA 30366, or online at www.molfi.org. The Magic of Life Foundation– Enhancing Cancer Survivorship