If brain cancer patient Denny Fitch of St. Charles ever wonders whether he can cheat death, all he has to do is look at the old news coverage of United Flight 232's fiery cartwheel into an Iowa cornfield.
"Nobody had a right to walk away from that, Fitch told the Daily Herald a few months after the July 19, 1989, crash. Fitch, a veteran pilot and flight instructor, voluntarily traded his first-class passenger's seat for a spot on the cockpit floor that day, and helped pilot the commercial jet after it lost all hydraulic power, en route from Denver to Chicago. Fitch helped save the lives of 184 of the 296 people on board, and was hailed as a hero by President George H.W. Bush for his role in the miraculous landing.
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The calm determination and positive attitude Fitch employed that day are the same attributes that sustain him during his advocacy for the research at Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute in Chicago, where he is being treated for glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that was diagnosed in January.
"I think all of that will benefit him in the long run, says Dr. Jeffrey Raizer, co-director of the institute. "I think what Denny is doing is commendable.
Once again, Fitch is working to save other lives along with his own. The 67-year-old, a noted motivational speaker after his pilot career ended, delivered the keynote address for the brain institute's recent Minds Matter fundraiser, which raised more than $600,000.
"The vast majority of it is going for research, says Raizer, who notes that brain tumors, which attack 20,000 people a year, don't have the awareness, funding and research granted more common cancers such as breast or lung. "We're making some strides, albeit slowly.
While politely saying he was too tired to be interviewed Friday, Fitch, who retired as a commercial pilot in 2002, did fly in a small plane last weekend with his pilot son, says his wife, Rosa Fitch. She married Fitch almost 10 years ago, after the death of his first wife, GeneAnn, from a cancer that spread to her brain. Fitch's father also died of a similar cancer in 2001 at age 83.
Advances in surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and drugs have increased the life span of people with deadly brain tumors from a few months to years in some cases, Raizer says.
"I'm more optimistic now than I was 15 years ago, says Dr. James Chandler, Fitch's surgeon and co-director of the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute. Chandler says he's "very excited about the research and science in the field, and has a few patients who have survived a decade or longer.
The institute combines the resources of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, the university's Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and conducts research and clinical studies for patients.
"They come to see us because their doctors told them there was nothing you could do, Raizer says. "We want to be as aggressive as possible without harming the patient.
A positive attitude and a willingness to take on challenges doesn't guarantee a long life, but it does improve the quality of a patient's life and his ability to fight cancer, Raizer says.
"Patients who don't put up a strong fight don't fare as well, he says.
"I think when one faces a life-threatening situation, especially one as unfavorable as a plane crash…I think you develop this sense that you can do it, you can beat the odds, Chandler says. "Miracles do happen.
Fitch, who endured nine surgeries after the injuries he received in the airline crash, is a fighter, but he spends most of his time enjoying his family, Rosa Fitch says. He has three grown children, she has two and the couple are expecting their 10th grandchild.
"He's doing really well and we're optimistic, Rosa says of her husband.
"Denny has lived every day since that plane crash like it could be his last, so when he received his glioblastoma diagnosis in January, he was able to use that reserve of appreciation and positivity and apply it to his battle with brain cancer, Dr. Ann Mellott, a medical oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, says in a prepared statement. "We always stress the importance of celebrating each day, and Denny has already been living his life by that principle.