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Faith gives cancer survivor Dennis Vann strength

CANCER CHRONICLES PART 1: Diagnosis of survivor's cancer starts with tickle

Dennis Vann endured twice-daily radiation treatments — 62 in all — during his battle with cancer that presented itself as a lump on the back of his tongue. The Prince Automotive service manager said his faith in God allowed him to survive the ordeal. (Special photo)

Dennis Vann endured twice-daily radiation treatments — 62 in all — during his battle with cancer that presented itself as a lump on the back of his tongue. The Prince Automotive service manager said his faith in God allowed him to survive the ordeal. (Special photo)

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Dennis Vann lost 40 pounds during his cancer treatment, but he said the support of his wife Colleen, right, his daughter Haley and his son Bryan was instrumental in his survival. (Special photo)

ALBANY — For those who dispute the contention that surviving cancer is an act of faith, meet Dennis Vann.

Told three years ago that he had carcinoma at the base of his tongue that had started spreading down his throat, Vann “took about 15 minutes to have a pity party.” Then he turned everything over to God.

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“One of the first things I remember thinking when I started treatment was, ‘What an opportunity for testimony,’” Vann, the service manager at Prince (Automotive Group) of Albany and an elder at Albany Christian Church, said. “Sure, I had my ‘Wow!’ moment, and telling my daughter Haley that I had cancer was the hardest thing I ever did. But I never doubted for a minute that I would beat this.

CANCER CHRONICLES

This is the first of a five-part series focusing on individuals and doctors coping with cancer.

“On the Sunday the day before I started my treatment, one of our church elders called me and my family up to the front of the church. The whole church family came forward with us and just gathered around us, praying with us. That gave me a strength I didn’t know I had. With God on my side and the support of my family and extended church family, there was no way I would feel defeated.”

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Dennis Vann said telling his daughter Haley, 20, that he had cancer was the hardest thing he ever did. (Special photo)

There were no tell-tale symptoms that alerted Vann, who has always been a model of good health, that he was soon to start a battle for his life. But on the day after Labor Day 2010, his world would come crashing in on him. And it started with a tickle.

“I had a persistent tickle at the back of my throat,” Vann said. “I was getting ready for work on the day after Labor Day, and I pushed down my tongue and found a lump. I quickly made a brilliant deduction: ‘That’s not supposed to be there.’

“I got to work that day and decided to do a little investigation. Now the Internet can be the most wonderful thing in the world or it can be the most terrible thing. I started finding all these horror stories online, and that concerned me.”

Vann shared his concern with his wife Colleen who, as fate would have it, worked as administrator of the tumor registry for radiation oncologist Dr. Chuck Mendenhall at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital’s Cancer Center. Mendenhall insisted that Vann come in to be checked out.

“Dr. Mendenhall just adores my wife,” Vann said. “When I went in for my checkup, I heard him tell some people in the hallway, ‘This is important; this is Colleen’s husband.’ I knew I was in good hands.”

Mendenhall found a 22-millimeter tumor at the base of Vann’s tongue. A biopsy confirmed everyone’s worst fears: The tumor was cancerous.

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Back at work at Prince Automotive Group of Albany some three years after he finished cancer treatment, Dennis Vann said he looks at life differently now, taking time to appreciate every day. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

“There’s no way I could ever doubt that God had plans for me,” Vann said. “There was just this little tickle in the back of my throat. If I hadn’t had that, I never would have gotten checked. And we probably wouldn’t be talking today.”

Mendenhall got results from Vann’s biopsy on Tuesday. By Thursday, the service manager had had a feeding tube and life port inserted. He started treatment on Monday.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, Vann endured twice-daily radiation treatments — 62 in all — and six rounds of weekly chemotherapy treatment. He lost 40 pounds in the process, but one thing that never wavered was his faith.

“Chemo really beats you down,” Vann said. “But I’m very proud of the fact that I walked in for my first treatment, and I walked out after my last. I was determined to work through this. And except for the days that I had morning and evening radiation treatments and 5 1/2 hours of chemo, I was at work pretty much every day.”

When Mendenhall discoverd Vann’s tumor, it was diagnosed as Stage 3 cancer. But within two weeks of treatment, tests showed that the tumor had all but disappeared.

“Dr. Mendenhall said he’s never seen anyone react to treatment so quickly,” Vann said. “So don’t tell me there’s no room for miracles in today’s world. God is a miraculous healer.”

Vann’s treatment went so well, Mendenhall recruited his patient to serve as a “mental attitude adjuster” for other patients who started to lose hope during their own treatment.

“I gave Dr. Mendenhall my phone number and told him to have any patient who was starting to give up to call me,” Vann said. “And I don’t care if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, I always answer the phone. I usually get three or four calls a year — a lot of times it’s from a family member of a cancer patient — from people who are going through the same kind of treatment I had.

“When they hit a low point and stop fighting, what I do is basically give them a verbal boot in the butt. I let them know there is an end to what they’re going through. It’s a nasty, ugly process, but there’s nothing to do about it but get over it. I tell anyone who calls there is an end in sight, that the only way to beat what they’re going through is mentally. I tell them to get mad, to get it in their mind they’re going to beat this thing.”

Callers need not expect an outpouring of sympathy from Vann.

“When someone reaches a level where they’re at a really low point, they don’t need someone saying, ‘Oh, it’ll be OK,’” he said. “They need someone to get them fired up about beating cancer. I got through it with the help of God and the support of my family and extended church family. I’ll gladly be the one to offer that same support to anyone who needs it. I have no doubt in my mind that’s one of the reasons God allowed me to survive.”