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Uinta County Fights Cancer ~ Part 4: ‘I’ve had a long and unhappy relationship with cancer’

Posted: Friday, Jul 19th, 2013


Tom Wagner


EVANSTON — In the late 1960s and early 1970s, cancer research — and treatment — was in some of its earliest stages. During that time, the American Cancer Society was just beginning to do a lot of that life-saving research that so many people are thankful for today.

Due to the American Cancer Society’s advertising, a young biochemistry major decided for his senior project he’d help aid in research that eventually led to one of the most commonly used immunotheraphy treatments available today, called “5-fluorouracil.”

It was also a treatment that would prove to save that young man’s life.

The first of four battles with Hodgkin’s lymphoma began for Evanston’s Tom Wagner in 1974 — at the age of 24, just two years after he assisted the American Cancer Society with their research. Over the next 20 years, Wagner would be told three times that his cancer was back, and each successive time it was a little harder to combat. But with new medications available at each diagnosis, he said they were made a little easier to bear.

His first series of treatments were, as Wagner calls it, pretty ugly, with no anti-nausea medications or anything — just the basic radiation treatments. By the 1980s, his body had stopped making enough white blood cells to fight the disease — or the treatments — causing his bone marrow to give out, so treatments, the only ones that were available at that time, were halted altogether until the early 1990s, when the 5-fluorouracil treatments were made available for the first time. Also available was a white blood cell booster, which ultimately proved to be what would rid Wagner of Hodgkin’s in 1993.

After effects of those early forms of cancer treatment would affect Wagner for many years, causing not only infertility, but other forms of cancer to attack his body 35 years later. Wagner once again beat that cancer, and skin cancer, but now faces what he feels may be one of his biggest battles yet — pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed in 2012. Wagner said that, surprisingly, his pancreatic cancer has been stable since his initial diagnosis.

Fortunately, despite his lifelong struggle with cancer, he hasn’t had to go it alone.

“Never underestimate the importance in having a partner when fighting cancer,” Wagner said of his wife, Betsy. Wagner met Betsy when his first battle with Hodgkin’s was in remission. “Betsy and I — I think we are pretty good survivors, and we will continue to survive. We won’t always enjoy it, but we will continue to survive.”

It’s a team effort, he believes. He said they’ve survived quite a bit longer than they were supposed too, and they don’t intend to stop.

As a 24-year-old faced with a life-threatening disease, Wagner realized that life does not go on forever. And that thought has shaped how he has lived his life. Wagner feels he’s been a little braver in making life choices, ones that he may not have made if the knowledge that life was so finite were not at the forefront in his youth. Braver, yes, but Wagner said some proved not to be wiser. A business attempt made when there seemed nothing to lose ended up not turning out quite as he had hoped. But it’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all, or so seems to be the case when you have lived as Wagner has.  

“I’ve had a long and unhappy relationship with cancer,” Wagner said.

But he’s been involved in finding a cure, and the Relay for Life, since day one. Since the first year that Relay for Life was in Evanston, Wagner has been involved by walking, as a chairman, or otherwise helping in whatever capacity was necessary. 

This year, Wagner still plans to be involved with the Relay, but as he is still fighting his current battle, may only have the ability to walk the survivor’s lap. He hopes that other volunteers will step in and walk in his stead during the 2013 Relay for Life, scheduled for downtown Evanston’s Depot Square Aug. 23-24.

To participate, or for more information, please contact Diane Harris at Compassionate Journey, (307) 789-8316.











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