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A fight against cancer shared to inspire

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Journey for Survival – Final Entry

Introduction by Nick Cunha, photography courtesy of Katrin Wollner

“It is all about how we get there and who we travel with.” – Mark Wollner

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey on the 29th of April 1958, Mark Wollner began his career as an electrician working for his father. After a rewarding career he moved with his family and beloved son Jack to the British Virgin Islands in 1999 with the intention to retire. Instead, Mark started Island Time Ltd. Electrical business together with Leroy Nichols. At this time he also started MMM Power Boat Rentals as a side business. This was later renamed to Island Time Powerboat Rentals. In 2006 he finally retired as an electrician, running the boat business together with his wife Katrin as his mainstay. He adored the sea and loved helping people, so he became one of VISAR’s valuable volunteers, bringing with him experience as an EMT volunteer for the ambulance services in New Jersey. In his own words, Mark Wollner was on “borrowed time,” and he accepted it. He was no stranger to death because his heart had already stopped beating in the midst of previous surgical procedures. It was as if Mark had set his own ‘terms’ with God upon being diagnosed with Retroperitoneal Liposarcoma, (a rare type of cancer which only affects two in a million people, causing large fatty tumours to grow in the pelvic area) in 2006, and somehow he had managed to extend his ‘contract’ of five years in order to live another four. Anyone who knew Mark Wollner, wasn’t at all surprised by his unwillingness to give up. Sloan Kettering in New York was treating him from his diagnosis to May 2011, when they gave up on him. Not ready to surrender, he found Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma who saved his life in November 2011. At a revisit in October 2014, it was discovered that the cancer had spread past its usual area—Mark had by then endured six surgeries. On December 4, 2014, he was rushed into an emergency 12-hour surgery at the CTCA, followed by what began as a speedy recovery, but resulted in a downward spiral involving two additional major surgeries. Dr. Pierre Greeff and his staff performed their best and gave all they could to continue giving Mark chances at life until he returned home in April.

The following journal entry was delivered by Mark Wollner May 24, 2015 via email, from his hospital bed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been modestly edited so that it is as close to his words as possible. This entry would come to be Mark Wollner’s final journal Entry.

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So, as always, I will start by saying cancer sucks! There, got that off my chest.

I am not sure how to write this journal . . .

Life takes many different turns as we travel our endless highway. Cancer is a battle that is non-stop, for as long as you have the attitude and will to carry on. Sometimes, we cancer fighters just lose all hope and we call it a day. Sometimes, we do not have a choice and God decides for us.

I believe it is a combination of faith in the ‘All Mighty’, a strong will to survive, the want and willingness to carry on the fight, and the dedication of the doctors and nurses to guide you through your endless battles. My fight started in 2006 and by the grace of God, it continues today.

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This time is a bit different from the rest. My cancer has become more aggressive and has changed to one that is spreading out past its usual area. This round started in October 2014.

My visit to The Cancer Treatment Center of America, my home away from, resulted in a surgery that removed another melon size low grade Liposarcomer tumour from my pelvic area. So you know, my cancer is named “well differentiated lipo sarcoma in the retroperitoneal area”.

In short, “big, fat tumours that grow very rapidly in my pelvic area.” Recovery was slow with this one due to an infection that developed in the surgical area. We knew another tumour was growing but because of its location we needed to address the larger of the two, first.

On December 4th, I developed a complete bowel blockage that created pain that levelled me. I spent a few days in a local, private facility,Bougainvillea Hospital.A few blood transfers to boost my system and a few medications allowed movement. Then, I was out the door and on a flight to CTCA in Tulsa,Oklahoma for another surgery. This one started a downward slide that took all of what God above offered and the talent of two brilliant surgeons who led a team of the most caring and loving nurses you will ever meet. A true dream team.

My first surgery lasted about 12 hours, give or take an hour. A full abdominal surgery that removed about 80% of the cancer and some small bowel where the tumour attached itself. This is what caused the bowel obstruction. This is also the cancer that changed itself to a more aggressive type that spread outside the pelvic area. This is the bad boy that needed its butt kicked.

About 10 days into a what we thought was a speedy and uncomplicated recovery, something let loose in my abdominal area that became a dreaded nightmare; a hole developed in my small bowel. So, back into surgery I went so they could open me up and try to sort out the problem. Months dragged by as we tried to find a solution and we waited with hope that my body would heal itself. Many trials and failures and long days in a hospital bed. I have been without food since early December and my life was being sustained by an infusion of tube fed nutrients.

Somewhere in all this, my doctor decided to move on and left the hospital. Not a great feeling but as one door closes others open. I was handed over to a wonderful doctor named Dr. Pierre Greeff, a most talented, skilled surgeon who took on my case with a new set of sharp eyes and skills that brought hope back to me. Within days I was back in surgery where Dr.Greeff bypassed my section of small bowel that was causing the problems and reconnected my plumbing. This was performed in early April. Not everything went according to plan and I am not sure about the exact time frame here, so I will just tell you the events that followed.

My Gallbladder started to create a good amount of pain. Into an emergency procedure we went that same evening. They tried their best to sedate me but on such short notice, but none of the good stuff was available. They installed a drain into my Gallbladder and removed a good amount of “goo,” which solved one issue, but while they were implanting the drain tube, they implanted it next to a nerve. I suffered pain like I never felt before for what seemed like forever before they were able to give me medication that eased the pain.

Now, some where in all this I started to bleed quite a bit. On a Friday night my wife received a phone call to allow me to have an emergency surgery with blood transfusions, if needed, and to get on a plane as soon as possible. I was crashing and time was of the essence. Emergency surgery Friday night corrected the bleeding and Dr. Greeff also relocated the drain tube to my Gallbladder. I think we can call this surgery number 4.

In addition to all of this, my tumours were also in need of attention. The aggressive little bugger grew from 3 cm to 12 cm in a short amount of time, around my spine, pelvic area and small bowel. We started radiation therapy and a new treatment where they blast me with microwaves heating up the area where the tumours are to 110’f. This allows the tumour cells to open up allowing in more oxygen and in theory killing the cancer cells.

They suspend me on a cot and rolled a water bag over my mid section. This is then filled with water, holding me in place. At this time I only have a small amount to movement with my arms that allow me to reach out and grab a few ice cubes. Then for 90 minutesI am blasted with microwaves and it gets very, very warm.

All the while I was taking chemo tablets and recovering from surgeries and tests after tests. I will tell you first hand there was no way I could have pulled any of this off if it wasn’t for the loving and devoted care the nurses gave me. They are my angels who carried me through a lot of emotional needs, ungodly pain, and messy situations that challenged me mentally almost every day.

One night in particular all hell broke loose with a sudden discharge of what seemed like endless blood and loose stool through my fistula. I was emotionally ready to give up right there and then.Toss in the towel, call it a day, and thank you very much but I am done fighting.

Within minutes I had four angels tending to me with genuine professionalism and pure love. I had arms wrapped around me that gave me the ability to not want to give up. I cried like I never cried before in my life and I shook with fright. It was a mess, and my nurses emotionally put me back together within a short amount of time. Five months in a hospital bed without eating a thing,staring out a window and not knowing what tomorrow will bring is a mental challenge for survival. You run out of games to play. You run out of books to read. You run out of what to research on the internet. You just run out of steam. It is a constant challenge to keep your mind active and hold on to your sanity.

My most loving wife Katrin was there for all my major surgeries nursing me back to life mentally and physically. I am so proud of her. To be able to switch gears in between running a business at home by herself and flying to Tulsa to hold on to me. She is my true angel and soul mate. Bless her and her endless devoted love.

Ask me why I fight so hard and I will tell you the same. I cannot imagine myself not being at her side holding her hand. I am so proud of my son Jack for finally making a solid choice in life- a student studying marine mechanics who has high scores on every test and has a future mapped for himself. I could not be more proud and I will fight my fight so he can have me cheering him on.

I am home now. My most loving wife gave me a deadline early May that I am going home and that is that. My time at CTCA was up and we all geared up for my departure. After 5 months a lot of issues needed to be sorted through. I needed to learn how to eat. You would think that after 5 months of no food I would be eating like a bear. Little did I know, my body thought differently. Holding down food was a challenge. Just the act of swallowing was a challenge. Pain medication needed to be balanced out and the list went on until travel day, which was very exciting! I had tearful goodbyes and high fives from my angels.

After 5 months we grew together and became family for some and close friends for others. I cannot go into all their names but they know who they are, and I love them all.

Bless you.

The flight home was uneventful praise the Lord. I even managed a few sips of a cold beer. Then home, in my house, in my bed, but best of all, in my wife’s arms.

A few days into my settling in process it became more difficult to hold down food. Try as I might and as much as Katrin encouraged me I just could not hold anything down. I was sliding head first into a deep dark depression and I could not stop it. I hit rock bottom and the lid was starting to close over the hole I was in. I started medications and my wife started to help me see the light of day. I am happy to say that I am eating well and my depression is on the back burner of my life. A terrible thing to experience.

I have three things left in my deck of cards:

The love and devotion of my wife 2. The strength of Pray to God above and… a chemotherapy,Yondelis.

Yondelis is a miracle chemo that in the past has helped me in my fight. I just started it yesterday and will be needing it every 21 days. It is a bit expensive but what isn’t.

My set back now is medical insurance. After 9 years of fighting my cancer my health insurance was canceled. Their reason was that I exceeded my life time limit. So life takes its turn again. All my chemo, all my medical visits to the doctors, all my blood tests , all my CT scans every thing will now be paid out of my pocket. You can imagine after me being in the hospital for 5 months where my family are financially .

No US based carrier will pick me up because my past health care was not a US company. I am being denied here outside the US because of my preexisting condition.

We will do what Katrin and I always do. We will take one day at a time and one challenge at a time and make it work. We have my second round of chemo paid for and ordered. In the next week we need to place the order for my third round. We are not there yet, but we will get it done. One obstacle, one challenge and one day at a time.

In all, my past six months have been a challenge to say the least. I do not ever want to experience it again. I most likely will never be in that position anyway. Future surgeries will be limited if not impossible.

My body just can’t handle any more trauma. The tumours are also spreading to areas where surgery is limited. If the chemo and praying add up I am hoping we can stop this cancer in its tracks. I can live with what I have. If it works I will spend the rest of my life on this chemo.

I will continue to fight my fight one day at a time. That is all we can ask for.

Thank you one and all for your support. It means a lot in my fight.

Bless You

Mark Wollner

Mark Wollner passed away on July 4, 2015, at the young age of 57. He hoped that his series of journal entries during the course of his battle would inspire others to treasure life and appreciate those who love you and support you through journeys, whether they be good or bad.

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