Next month, Buzan begins university with a new outlook after beating back leukemia in record time
Have you ever had that feeling that things in your life are too good to be true?
This was the case for 20-year-old Dillon Buzan who had just spent his summer working at Our Lady Queen of Peace Ranch near Bragg Creek as a camp counselor. It was the best job he ever had, as it gave him a chance to work outdoors, be physically active and develop new friendships. He also met a fellow counselor named Katie Pierard, who became his girlfriend.
“It was the best time of my life,” he says.
As camp was coming to an end, Buzan anticipated starting Mount Royal University.
That was until he noticed a lump on his neck during the last few weeks of summer. Everyone at camp told him it was likely just a swollen lymph node, nothing to worry about.
Something wasn’t right
Buzan thought little of the lump until he mentioned it to his parents, Larry and Christine Buzan, who recommended he get it checked out by a doctor. Buzan agreed, and visited a walk-in clinic shortly after. The doctor said he didn’t believe the lump to be anything, but recommended Buzan get blood work done just in case.
After several days of hearing nothing from the walk-in clinic, Buzan decided to get his blood work done again at Rockyview General Hospital, as the results would come back the same day. This was when uncertainty turned into nervousness.
The doctors at Rockyview told Buzan that something just wasn’t right with his blood and they would have to look more into it. He was sent home and told to return to the hospital if he got a fever. Lo and behold, that night Buzan developed a fever and returned. He was put in isolation for eight hours.
“I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Buzan says. “Maybe it was a weird bug I caught at camp. I thought it could be anything.”
Next thing Buzan knew, he was being pumped with an IV.
“It was an extremely cold liquid to get my temperature down,” he says. “They were trying to get me as cold as possible.”
As Buzan waited for his temperature to go down, doctors came in and told him they were going to do an MRI to see what exactly was going on.
Getting the news
Photo courtesy of Dillan BuzanBuzan knew something was wrong. Once again he was forced to wait for news on his health, and his mind was flooded with thoughts of what could be wrong. The nurses in charge knew they had to do more testing, and Buzan knew they weren’t being straightforward with him.
Sitting alone, Buzan thought about his life. How it had only been a year since he had graduated from Henry Wise Wood High School, and how he had just met an amazing woman at the end of camp. How would she react if there was something wrong with him? How were his parents and two older brothers going to take the news if it was something bad?
Then, the giveaway: Buzan remembers one particular volunteer who came to his bedside before he knew what was going on. The volunteer came in, sat beside his bed and asked if she could pray for him.
“She took my hand and told me it was going to be a long and tough road,” he says. “She told me I was going to make it, looking back it is like wow, she kind of called it.”
On Sept. 5, 2012, at 19 years old, Buzan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“I was in disbelief,” he says. “I just came off of the happiest time of my life from summer camp.
For Katie Pierard, Buzan’s new love, the whole diagnosis was surreal.
“You didn’t expect it but in the back of your head you knew something was wrong,” she says. “He did not know the severity of it, but he seemed fine, I was just surprised.”
Dillion’s mom, Christine Buzan, was also completely taken aback by the diagnosis.
“This has been the most challenging thing I have ever faced,” Christine says of her youngest son. “This was never part of my hopes and dreams for him.”
The fight begins
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a fast-growing cancer of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Normal lymphocytes help the body fight infections. However, in this disease, these cells are cancerous and don’t fight infections well. The cancerous cells grow quickly and prevent bone marrow from making the normal blood cells the body needs.
This type of leukemia normally only appears in children under 15, although it can develop in all age groups. Four out of five deaths from acute lymphoblastic leukemia occur in adults, and the overall cure rate for adults, like Dillion Buzan, is approximately 40 per cent.
Chemotherapy was needed but Dillon learned it could make him infertile; he visited a sperm bank before it started. His life had been completely turned upside down.
The day of his diagnosis, Dillon was moved to Peter Lougheed Centre to start chemotherapy via oral medications, needles and IVs. The treatments left him with no energy and the needles left bruises all over his arms and shoulders. Friends who came to see Dillon had to wear masks — his immune system was so weak that he couldn’t afford to get sick.
“The chemo took up so much energy that I couldn’t even open up my eyelids,” he says. “For breakfast there would be eight pills, lunch three to four and before bed five or so.”
This was the beginning of having tubes hooked into his body. Blood work was three to four times a day. MRI and x-ray machines continuously scanned him.
“But at the same time I knew I had so much support, and physically I still felt great. I thought to myself everything was going to be alright.”
That is no Xbox
Photo courtesy of Matt Lowden PhotographyOne of the drugs Dillon was prescribed, a steroid called prednisone, made him a temporary diabetic. On top of the chemotherapy, Dillon now had to have insulin shots four times a day.
It was at this point that his doctors decided to insert a central venous catheter into a vein in Dillon’s upper chest. The catheter would allow administering of medications and the withdrawal of blood without the use of repeated needles.
Dillon says the insertion of the catheter was the moment he felt different, and realized he was really a cancer patient.
“They told me they were going to put this line in my chest that would make things easier,” he says. “I didn’t realize it was going to look like the cords from your Xbox hanging out of your chest.”
Dillon was awake for the procedure. “It felt like someone was hooked on the inside of my chest with a fishing rod and they were reeling me in,” he recalls. “I felt the tugging and pulling, and kept hearing snapping and popping as they were cutting in to put the tube in.”
A taste of freedom
Dillon stayed at Peter Lougheed Centre for just over a month. He had been isolated to his room and hospital bed because of a weak immune system, and says he felt like a complete prisoner.
“In the hospital you feel like you are being left behind in a sense, [and] the world is going on without you,” he says.
Doctors granted Dillon day passes in October so he could go home for the day, but he had to come back to the hospital at night to sleep.
At the hospital, Dillon’s view was a brick wall. When he went home he found himself staring outside, enjoying being around his family and his pets again. He couldn’t go out and risk illness so he spent a lot of time gaming at home.
“He couldn’t do anything,” Pierard says. “It was like he was on house arrest, and he felt bad that we couldn’t do anything, but I was more than happy to just relax with him and watch movies. At least we were together and away from the hospital.”
A tough choice
Photo by Landon WesleyA couple of months into the chemotherapy treatment, Dillon went with his parents to meet with his doctors; he was taking to the chemotherapy extremely well.
The doctors told Dillon if he stuck with chemotherapy, he would be looking at two to three years of it. They then informed him that a bone marrow transplant was his best chance of a full recovery.
With a bone marrow transplant, new stem cells are introduced into the body to stimulate the production of healthy blood cells. It is an extremely risky procedure, as a body can attack itself if it doesn’t take to the new cells.
His mother was worried but Dillon decided to go through with the transplant.
“I never thought I would have to fight this for a couple of years,” he says. “For me this transplant was a no-brainer. If someone comes up to you and says you can do this for two to three years and it might not work or you can do this and you have a better chance to live — it isn’t an option what to do.”
Dillon’s choice was made.
“I was young, healthy and in great shape. If cancer had a time to pick and choose a fight with me, it picked the wrong time.”
On Feb. 20, 2013, Dillon had a stem cell transplant. He had managed to stay positive throughout his battle with chemotherapy, but the transplant was a different experience.
“He was definitely very positive at the start,” Pierard says. “When the transplant happened he was broken. Anytime I would leave him I felt like I was leaving his sanity in the hands of himself. He was completely miserable.”
In preparation for the transplant, Dillon had to have total body radiation, and he was prescribed medication that made him feel terrible. This was an important step in the process: his body had to have all of his cells wiped out so that the new cells would take.
“(The) transplant was terrible — your whole body is on fire, everything hurts and I was miserable,” he says. “I would focus on each minute of every day and think, ‘That is 60 seconds down of a month.’ Time goes by so slow.”
Dillon was on a concentrated morphine pump constantly, and was able to push the button whenever he needed it to help stop the pain in his armpits, groin, mouth and eyelids.
“It felt like I was taking Advil,” he says. “I lost all of my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows. When I looked in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself. It felt like a horror movie.”
For Dillon, there were no good days around this time. He developed extreme depression and was constantly in pain. He was told he could eat whatever he desired, but he couldn’t even swallow saliva without feeling pain.
“Getting a handful of Cheerio’s down would be have been an achievement,” he says. “I couldn’t leave my room. I would stand up and my muscles would hurt so much, like you just did 150 crunches with your legs. They ached and hurt so bad just putting the pressure of your weight on them.”
All worth it
Photo by Landon WesleyOn May 30, 2013, after a long wait and a tough battle, Dillon finally received the startling news: He was cancer free. He had beat leukemia, a disease that normally takes years to fight into remission, in fewer than 12 months.
“There were so many tears, I could start recovering,” he says. “I could start living again. It felt so good to hear those words.”
Back to school
Cancer free, Dillon is starting from where he left off. He is registered in the business program at Mount Royal University, and is set to begin in January 2014. He’s ecstatic to be going back to school.
Dillon says he appreciates everything in a way he never did before his fight with cancer, and is looking forward to a clean slate.
“We think we are invincible because we are young and in good shape, but unexpected things do happen, and I don’t take anything for granted anymore.”
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