Jeff Jardine

23-year-old survivor begins life anew

We're all suckers for a great comeback -- a feel-good story in which someone has risen from the depths of disease and despair to help others.

This is one of them.

Ryan Dyke is a 23-year-old Modesto resident who has a 10-inch scar down the middle of his stomach, and one testicle. A three-year ordeal with cancer caused him a great deal of pain, cost him his longtime girlfriend and eight months of work, and stretched out his education by several years.

He's still trying to kick the morphine addiction he developed after his second surgery nearly a year ago -- the final piece of putting a most frightening episode of life behind him and focusing entirely on his future.

You'll never meet a more exuberant and energetic young man. He's been cancer-free since Oct. 4, 2006. He wants the world to know the value of getting regular checkups and not delaying a visit to a physician when something is amiss. Because getting tested for one thing, he said, can uncover the real problem elsewhere. That's what happened to him.

Now, Dyke said, "I'm a cancer survivor. I've got an angel. God is looking out for me."

Dyke has spent much of his life in and out of hospitals, beginning with a severe asthma condition that surfaced when he was just 5 months old. In one attack as a child, he nearly died before being revived in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Meanwhile, his parents went through a divorce while he was in elementary school.

"It was a bad situation for a kid so sick to deal with," said Christine Marshall, his mom. "It was nothing he did. It was us (his parents). People need to grow up."

She moved Ryan; his older sister, Shelley; and his younger brother, Kyle, to Escalon, and started over.

As Dyke grew up, the asthma eased to the point where he could control it through inhalers, replacing the machine that pumped drugs into his system when attacks occurred.

He graduated from Escalon High in 2002, started taking classes at Modesto Junior College and began working for a prosthetics distributor in Oakdale. He moved in with his girlfriend, and things were going well.

"He told me, 'Mom, this is as happy as I've ever been,' " Marshall said.

The bliss didn't last long. While in the shower one day in 2004, Dyke noticed a lump on one of his testicles. The lump soon disappeared, and he ignored it.

Then he began to experience pain in his left kidney. Doctors suspected kidney stones, but the pain persisted. They prescribed Vicodin with codeine, which didn't help much even though he downed an entire bottle over the course of one weekend because the pain was so great.

On Thanksgiving Day 2005, his mom knew something really was wrong.

"He didn't hardly eat at all," Marshall said. "I sent his dinner home with him. He said, 'Mom, I'm so sick.' "

By the spring of 2006, Dyke was 22 years old, constantly hurting and popping painkillers that had no effect until he drowned them in vodka.

"I was drinking every day," he said.

He often had to leave work because of the pain, and if not for a sympathetic and caring boss in company owner Eddie Rogers, Dyke figures he probably would have lost his job. He is now the firm's accounts payable manager.

His girlfriend bore the brunt of his moods until she could take no more, he said.

"She said she didn't want to be with someone who was always so sick," he said. "She thought I wanted to die. I don't blame her for any of it (leaving him)."

A day after she moved out of their rented home in the summer of 2006, Dyke went to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto, where doctors discovered a 10-centimeter mass near his left kidney. They shipped him immediately to Stanford Medical Center, where doctors were about to operate until another intervened and suggested they check his testicles first, Dyke said.

An ultrasound exam found a small growth that turned out to be testicular cancer. That cancer, he said, caused the other growth near his kidney. They operated in June 2006 to remove the testicle, and he spent the next few months on chemotherapy.

By the time they operated again to remove the growth near his kidney, in October, he'd lost 55 pounds and was down to 135. That growth, unlike the other, was benign.

"I was cancer-free at that point," he said. But complications during his recovery demanded morphine, and he became hooked -- an addiction he said he still is fighting today, though he expects to be weaned from it within two months.

When he went back for another round of chemo, it reminded him that he was awfully young to be dealing with such problems.

"I'd go in there, and there'd be 90-year-olds looking at me and saying, 'What are you doing here?' " Dyke said.

The various forms of cancer don't discriminate by age. He realized that if you don't get regular checkups, or see a doctor when you discover a lump or endure inexplicable pain, you might be giving cancer the chance to gain a foothold in your body. That's what happened to him.

Dyke is back up to 160 pounds and is feeling better every day. He's also decided to make a crusade of encouraging young people to be tested and examined regularly.

"I think God chose me for a reason," he said.

He and a close group of friends from Escalon will ride together in the LiveStrong cycling event Sept. 29-30 in Portland, Ore. The event, founded by cancer survivor and retired seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, raises money for cancer research.

Dyke recently had a yellow LiveStrong wristband permanently tattooed on his wrist. He customized it with the team logos of his beloved San Francisco 49ers and Oakland A's.

But hey, it's his wrist.

He'll soon get his associate degree from MJC -- needing five years to complete it because of work and his illness -- and hopes to enroll at California State University, Stanislaus, in the spring.

Mostly, Dyke wants his bout with cancer to mean something. Next month, he'll mark one year since his last surgery. The cancer has shown no signs of returning, but it won't be forgotten.

"It changed my whole life," Dyke said. "Life is too important to treat it the way I'd been treating it. I took my job for granted. I took my girlfriend for granted. I took everything for granted."

He survived, is now thriving physically for the first time in his life, and hopes his ordeal will help others.

That's a feel-good story, indeed.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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