A suburban dad embraces Father's Day after beating cancer
The best gift Sam and Alison Summins will give their dad today is the expectation that they will celebrate lots more Father's Days together.
"No doubt about it," said a beaming Ray Summins, a 48-year-old Hoffman Estates dad who has beaten cancer twice. "I couldn't have done it without them."
Having survived skin cancer nearly a decade ago, Summins was on the couch last October when Alison discovered the tumor that started his latest ordeal.
"I was sitting on his legs, and he was just talking to me," remembered Alison, 10. When her father burst into laughter, Alison looked up and noticed a lump hanging from the roof of her dad's mouth.
"I said, 'What is that?'" she said. "And he didn't even know he had it."
The dad and his kids were getting their typical early start on Christmas shopping on Nov. 15 when the doctor called Summins' cellphone with the biopsy results.
"He looked worried," said Sam, 13, who instinctively stuck with his sister as they gave their father some privacy. Then Summins motioned for them all to leave.
"We walked out of the store with him still on the phone," Sam said.
The biopsy showed that Summins had osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that typically shows up in the legs and arms of adolescents, not in the mouth of a middle-age man.
"You hear something like that, and your first reaction is to think the worst — I'm going to die," Summins said. Summins gamely broke the news to his kids in the car as he drove them back to their mom's home in Elk Grove Village.
"I didn't want to look like the sobbing, weeping parent. I was trying not to break down," said Summins, who teared up anyway. "I felt bad that I lost my composure. I didn't want to scare them."
Sam and Alison struggled with their emotions.
"I was trying to keep it together for her," Sam said, thinking of his little sister. After seven years with his dad as his baseball coach, Sam knew how to keep up morale when things weren't going well. He immediately talked about how they could beat cancer together. Alison also put on her game face.
"I tried to comfort him (her dad), to talk to him," said Alison, who will be a fifth-grader at Adolph Link Elementary School in Elk Grove Village this fall. "I cried after I got home."
Surgery on Dec. 1 at Loyola University Hospital in Maywood removed the cancerous lump, surrounding bone and cartilage in Summins' palate, three teeth and some gum.
"It never crossed my mind that he would die. I know his personality, and he's a fighter and stubborn," said Paige Summins, who was looking forward to celebrating a third wedding anniversary with her husband in February. But seeing her husband after the grueling surgery shook her.
"I looked like a mess," said Summins, who spent nine hours in the postoperative recovery room. "My cheek was swollen out to here and I was all bloody."
"I just had a good cry in the hallway and then I was fine," his wife said.
For the next step in his treatment, Summins decided to go to the CDH Proton Center, a ProCure Center in Warrenville that uses proton radiation instead of traditional X-ray radiation. The only proton center in Illinois and one of 10 in the nation, the Warrenville center draws patients from as far away as the United Arab Emirates and Australia, said Dr. William F. Hartsell, director of the center and the radiation oncologist who treated Summins.
Traditional X-rays go in a straight line until they hit something and release their energy, said Hartsell. Created by a miniature version of a massive cyclotron such as the one at Fermilab in Batavia, proton radiation can be focused so that it attacks specific areas without causing equal damage to the surrounding healthy tissue, Hartsell says.
Wearing a mesh mask to hold his head in place, Summins received 33 doses of proton therapy by visiting the center every weekday morning for 6 Ĺ weeks.
"I could hear the machine whirring around, but I couldn't feel anything," Summins said of the treatments, which took only a minute or two once everything was in position.
For a couple of weeks after the surgery on his mouth, Summins couldn't speak and had to communicate by writing.
"He could still make us laugh with a dry-erase board," Sam says.
"They did a good job of bringing my spirits up," Summins said about his children. He said his voice is growing stronger but has a nasally tone. He still can't yell. He said he looked forward to those nights and weekends when the kids would be with him in Hoffman Estates instead of with their mother in Elk Grove Village.
"I was worried, really worried at times," Alison said. "I just tried not to show it when I was with my dad."
"We were always positive," Sam said. "But on the inside, I was thinking about it."
Removal of the tumor left a hole in the roof of Summins' mouth leading into his sinus cavity. So if he wants to eat or drink, he needs to insert his obturator, a device that looks like a dental retainer with a plug that fits into the hole.
"Every time we eat, we sing this song," Sam said as he and his sister giggled and broke into an old standard house dance song called "Coffee Pot (It's Time for the Percolator)" and substituted in the word "obturator." "It's pretty funny."
Summins, whose voice sounds a bit nasally, is waiting to heal so he can be fitted for a more permanent obturator that he can wear during the day and leave in a glass of water by his bed at night. He can't eat or drink without that plug.
"That happened a couple of times and it went right out my nose, and it's very unpleasant," Summins said. "One reason I've lost weight is that I cannot impulsively grab a Twinkie or doughnut anymore."
While he doesn't recommend the cancer diet, Summins lost 86 pounds and now weighs a more fit 201 pounds. He not only got rid of his extra chin, he also shed his blood-pressure medication.
Throughout his cancer treatment, Summins, who was a college pitcher in the early 1980s at Benedictine University in Lisle, continued to coach Sam's baseball team and serve on the board in the Elk Grove Village pony league. The kids and coaches have been very understanding, said Summins, whose team is in the midst of a playoff run.
Doctors can't say how Summins developed osteosarcoma, but Summins thinks it might have been a result of the radiation doses he received years ago for the skin cancer on his nose. Reducing the chance of radiation-induced cancers is an advantage of proton radiation, Hartsell said.
In February, when the students at Margaret Mead Junior High School in Elk Grove Village presented a check to the American Cancer Society with the money raised during their annual cancer walk, Sam, who will be an eighth-grader there in the fall, gave a speech to 600 students and staff members.
"He talked about how important fighting cancer is and how you never know who might get it," Summins said.
"As far as we know, there's no cancer at all. It's completely gone," Hartsell said of his patient. "His prognosis is quite good. In a short period of time, I think he's going to be doing great."
Summins plans to spend part of his Father's Day watching Alison's dance recital. He'll coach Sam's baseball team in the playoffs this coming week. He returned to his job as an insurance fraud investigator a month ago.
"I'm more cognizant of the fact that you are not guaranteed anything," he said as he sat on the couch with his kids. He's healthier and hoping a new, more permanent obturator will make his voice sound more like the one still on his voice-mail message. But his kids don't care about the way he sounds.
"That's peanuts. We can deal with that," Sam said. "He's still the same old Dad."
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