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updated: 6/22/2015 11:08 AM

Elgin dentist has a cancer perspective this Father's Day

Dentist in Elgin tackling what he couldn't plan for

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  • In April, Greg Karr, St. Charles resident and Elgin dentist, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor. He is undergoing treatment but has regained all functionality.

      In April, Greg Karr, St. Charles resident and Elgin dentist, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor. He is undergoing treatment but has regained all functionality.
    Lauren Rohr | Staff Photographer

  • Greg Karr and his wife, Lynda, are St. Charles residents and parents of three. He is battling glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.

      Greg Karr and his wife, Lynda, are St. Charles residents and parents of three. He is battling glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
    Lauren Rohr | Staff Photographer


Everything in Greg Karr's life had always been planned to near perfection.

Since the eighth grade, he had planned to become a dentist, and now he's 31 years into his career practicing dentistry in Elgin. He plans vacations far in advance, and he never takes unscheduled time off work, even when he's sick.

A resident of St. Charles and a father of three, Greg was living the life he dreamed of -- the life he had planned out for himself and his family.

But in April, life threw the 57-year-old Karr a curveball, and he realized that there are some things he couldn't prepare for.

"That's one thing that's hardest to accept," he said. "Plans don't always work out the way you want them to."

When Karr woke up April 16, he wasn't able to move his left hand very well. He wrote it off as nothing serious, thinking it was just a pinched nerve.

"None of us thought anything of it," said his wife, Lynda. "I wasn't worried."

Four days later, Karr had a routine doctor's appointment scheduled at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. He figured there was no harm in asking his longtime physician, Dr. Dorothea Poulos, to take a look at his hand. Poules scheduled him a CT scan for that afternoon, just to be safe.

The scan found the opposite of what Greg was expecting; a mass was pressing on the part of his brain that controlled the functionality of his left hand.

The diagnosis

Having heard before that most brain masses are malignant tumors, he suspected the worst.

A few days later, Greg was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a cancerous brain tumor that is second to pancreatic cancer for shortest life expectancy after diagnosis. He was told he would have to go through treatment and a surgery to remove the mass. Greg had to be awake for the procedure.

But even if that went well, it was likely that he would never regain full mobility in his hand.

His first thought, he said, was that his career was over, and he was devastated. He loved being a dentist and interacting with his patients, some of whom are like family to him.

"The last 31 years, I've been practicing my life as a dentist," he said. "Do I all of the sudden just lose that?"

Without functionality of his hand, he also would have to give up his second greatest passion: woodworking. Karr had built his garage, some furniture, the trim work in his home, the entertainment center. He was in the middle of renovating parts of his house. Would he ever get to finish it?

But what he feared most was how his cancer would affect his family and loved ones. He thought of his children, Alex, 24; Kendall, 22; and Gavin, 19. Would he be able to dance at their weddings? Would he ever get to meet his grandchildren? Would he and his wife get to retire together like they had planned?

There were so many unknowns.

"Nowadays, we all think we're going to live until our 70s, 80s or 90s, and suddenly, you're 57 years old and you're thinking, 'I could have two years left,' " he said. "It's very shocking when you start to think about life in that time frame.

"It sends a jolt through you."

Staying positive

The way Greg and Lynda saw it, they had a choice. They could be positive and accept the support of their friends and family. They could learn all that they could about the disease. Or they could focus on the negative and make everyone else hurt with them.

They chose positivity.

In the days leading up to Karr's surgery April 28 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Karrs had family and friends over almost every night. On Monday, many of Karr's loved ones met him in Chicago for a celebration.

"People just wanted to be near him," Lynda said. "If love could've cured this guy, he would've already been cured."

Being awake during the surgery didn't scare Karr. He was more nervous about the outcome. At this point, his arm was in a splint and he was unable to move his hand at all.

Karr said he told his doctors -- Dr. Matthew Tate, a neurosurgeon, and Dr. James Chandler, surgical director of neuro-oncology -- that he would rather lose mobility in his hand than lose his life. He wasn't ready to give up yet. He wanted to spend more time with his family.

"He's a very committed dentist, but he's an even more devoted father," Chandler said. "He told me he had a very fulfilling career, but the most important role he plays in life is being a father."

In cases like Karr's, Chandler said, any damage that has already been done to the brain isn't likely to be reversed. The idea is to remove the tumor as much as possible and prevent the damage from getting worse.

Onward and upward

The surgery was a stunning success, Karr said. Chandler said they were able to remove more than 95 percent of the mass, and when Karr came out of surgery, he could move his hand again.

Within days, Karr was home and able to dress himself. He started gaining the ability to tie his shoes and brush his teeth. And after only a month, Karr returned to work.

"With my particular outcome, the likelihood of living decades is still a possibility," Karr said. "That would be unheard of years ago."

It'll be an uphill battle, he said, because a tumor can recur at any point. He has a few weeks left of chemotherapy pills and radiation. After that, his treatment plan will evolve based on the status of his condition.

Instead of revolving his life around his treatment, he's just made it part of his daily routine.

"I chose not to let it take over my life and to continue to live my life as I would normally," Karr said.

Karr said he's taking life day by day. He's letting go of the little things that would have bothered him before. Most of all, he's staying optimistic. He's still making plans.

"It's been a wild ride, and there's still a lot of unknowns," he said. "But my family and I realized that there are things that happen to you that can completely change your life in an instant. You have to make the most of it."

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