At 64 years old, Richard Cowan is the strongest he has ever been in his entire life. The Massapequa Park resident has always found enjoyment in the outdoors, a love that will be taken to new heights when he climbs Mount Kilimanjaro this month. Oh, and he has also defeated cancer…twice.
“My wife and I got married in June 2015 and went on our honeymoon to Mexico. It was beautiful,” said Cowan, who is a physical therapist and massage therapist in Far Rockaway. “When we got back, I found I was coughing a lot and thought it was chronic bronchitis. My physician sent me to an ENT, who did a CAT scan and saw a lump at the base of my tongue. The biopsy came back positive.”
Cowan’s doctor transferred him to Memorial Sloan Kettering, the top ranked cancer care treatment facility in Manhattan. He was diagnosed with stage 1 tongue cancer six weeks after saying “I do.”
“I am very fortunate that my wife, who is a nurse, took such great care of me and still does,” said Cowan of his wife, who remained by his side throughout the entire journey.
And so began rounds of chemotherapy, the installation of a port into Cowan’s chest and a precautionary feeding tube. His weight dropped from 170 to 120 pounds. When he began radiation, which was spread out over several dosages, Cowan had no idea how sick he was.
“Looking back I can see how bad it was,” he said, adding that three months after his last treatment, Cowan returned to work in February part-time, learning that a few weeks later all of his tumors were gone. Unfortunately, three months later, the cancer returned, this time, spreading to Cowan’s lymph nodes.
“They decided to do more biopsies and found the cancer had spread from my tongue to the area between my lungs and then into my lungs,” said Cowan, who wanted to try immunotherapy—a treatment that removes the gate or “disguise” around the cancer cell enabling the body to recognize it as foreign and attack it—but his doctor was opposed. “He said it wouldn’t cure me but at one point, he made the decision to do it because the cancer spread too far and we couldn’t radiate everything in my body.”
Cowan began immunotherapy using Opdivo treatments in November 2016, when he was among 50 others selected to join a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Three months after beginning the therapy, all nine of his tumors were gone. Cowan has now been through 19 months of immunotherapy (the trial ends in November) on Opdivo, a medicine made by Bristol-Myers Squibb, and is determined to help others who are facing a similar fate.
“Last August, I read an article about cancer patients raising money for a special type of cancer they had and they wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money,” he said, telling his wife he believed he was in the shape to do the same. “I decided to raise money for a research project at Memorial Sloan Kettering to help those who have not responded to immunotherapy because I want to know why.”
On Aug. 12, Cowan will set off on his biggest climb to date, alongside his friend Sam Buttigieg. Together, the two will summit the highest mountain in Africa, 19,341 feet above sea level, with the goal of not only reaching the top, but raising $19,300 as well. The climb to the top takes a total of six-and-a-half days and only a day and a half to come back down.
“On the way up, you have to go slower because of the altitude. We’re doing our best to prepare ourselves,” said Cowan, who has been training since last September. His training sessions have included biking 25 miles from Massapequa to Commack and 75 miles from Massapequa to Southold as well as a trip to Colorado for some mountain climbing.
Every two to three months, Cowan has a new CAT scan. When he goes in for his immunotherapy infusions, he tells other patients his story.
“There’s a time when you shouldn’t get out of bed when you’re sick because you’re not doing anyone any good by stressing yourself out. Then there are other times when you have to get out of bed and walk, taking everything one step at a time,” says Cowan to those diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses. “Take a few breaths, take a step. That’s what they do on Kilimanjaro and Everest and that’s what cancer patients do.”
To help Cowan in his quest to raise money, make a donation on his Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Giving Page http://mskcc.convio.net/goto/richardcowan or send a check to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, ATTN: Lauren Kelly, 885 Second Ave., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10017.