After cancer diagnosis, Zylka is grateful

Less than a year later, Greg Zylka will share his story at 19th annual Relay for Life

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer

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Cancer survivor Greg Zylka watched his parents die of cancer, and has lost friends like Kim Hansen. Other family members and friends, like Steve Emblom, are currently fighting cancer, and Zylka has seen their courage and how they handled their situations. “It’s funny — when I received the diagnosis, I didn’t pray not to have it,” he said. “I prayed I would have the strength to fight it, like so many other people I’ve seen.”

“It’s humbling to be asked to speak at the Relay for Life luminaria ceremony,” said Greg Zylka, a survivor of kidney cancer. “My experience was painful and scary, but other people have had it so much worse.”

Following a heart attack in 2007, when a stent was put in, Zylka was conscientious about not ignoring aches and pains. He spent three to four years of visiting doctors trying to find the cause of some upper abdominal distress which included “more ultrasounds than a mother of five has had,” said Zylka. He was always told there was nothing wrong. But then in August 2011, he was told that he had kidney cancer.

It was on a Friday evening that the discomfort got so bad that Zylka’s wife, Wendy, took him to Express Care in Sartell. He was called the next day with the results of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and told there was a problem with his pancreas.

When he got to the doctor the following Monday, he was told there was nothing wrong with his pancreas, but that there was a lump on his kidney.

“Dr. McGee told me that he believed it was kidney cancer but that he believed he could get it all,” Zylka said. “He said I can live a long, productive life. He did not do a biopsy, since there is too great a chance of spreading the cancer.”

Zylka had watched both of his parents die of cancer, and a niece continues to fight a brain tumor. “Wendy and I were devastated to hear that word,” he said. “I had worried about that for so long. But after thinking the problem was in my pancreas, this didn’t seem so bad. There was both sadness and happiness”

When discussing treatment options, Zylka asked the doctor what he would recommend if it were his own father or brother. The doctor suggested performing a partial nephrectomy (removal of part of a kidney) using the daVinci surgery method. It is a minimally invasive procedure performed through four to five small holes in the abdomen.

“At my first follow-up appointment, Dr. McGee pointed to each hole and explained what each had been used for — one for the camera and light, one for drainage, one for the surgeon’s work, one for the assistants to pass the surgical tools through,” Zylka said.

During the surgery, the surgeon controls every aspect of the procedure with the assistance of the daVinci robotic platform. The da Vinci system cannot be programmed and it cannot make decisions on its own. Every surgical move must be performed with direct input from the surgeon.

“Mine was only the 28th daVinci surgery that Dr. McGee had done,” said Zylka. “It was done in St. Cloud because Little Falls does not have the equipment yet.”

The surgery in September was all that was required with Zylka’s form of cancer. Once the cancer was confirmed during the surgery, the upper third of the affected kidney was removed, down to the renal vein.

“I was told that kidney would lose about 10 percent function, but I haven’t noticed a difference,” said Zylka.

He was told that recovery would take seven weeks. “I’m a quick healer, but that was pushing it,” he said. “I was so weakened and in so much pain; I just couldn’t get comfortable.”

Zylka’s body had a hard time processing pain medications and he became depressed. But that gave him time to think about everyone who had it so much worse. “I don’t know how they did it,” he said. “The doctor had told me it would take one full year until I was completely recovered.”

Zylka was strengthened by all that Wendy did for him the entire time. “If it hadn’t been for my wife, I don’t know what I would have done. She was just a rock. She did everything for me. Everybody looks at me as being such a strong person, but it is only if it’s not me. For a couple weeks, I was too weak to even stand in the shower,” he said.

Zylka had not sought a second opinion regarding his diagnosis, but does not doubt that decision. While looking online for a doctor after the diagnosis, he found the Adult and Pediatric Urology Clinic in St. Cloud. After reading about each physician’s background and specialties, his first choice was Dr. McGee.

“We had called Dr. Lanctin first, knowing he sees patients in Little Falls once a week, but when the office called me back to set up an appointment they said they had an opening with Dr. McGee,” he said. “Everything seemed to fit.”

At his three-month checkup in December, everything looked so good that Zylka was told he wouldn’t need another checkup for a year.

“As word got out that I had kidney cancer,” said Zylka, “it was incredible to hear from so many people who have had this cancer and some have lost a kidney.”

“I have always been a strong believer and part of believing is prayer and the power of positive reinforcement,” he said. “So many friends put my name in their prayer chains; I appreciated every one. I didn’t want to go, but if that was God’s choice that would have been OK.”

Life has come full circle for Zylka in one respect. He and Dr. Jim Fitzsimmons together organized the first Morrison County Relay for Life in 1994, mainly because of his parents’ experiences. He also chaired the Morrison County Cancer Society for a few years.

“This community is so giving,” Zylka said. “Relay for Life was a big deal right from the get-go in this county.”

Zylka believes the heroes are both the people who battle through the trauma as well as those who keep Relay for Life going.

“I see that other people have gone through a lot more than I have, both pain and mental anguish and I feel very fortunate,” he said.

Zylka will be dedicating his luminaria ceremony talk to his parents, his niece, his sister-in-law and dear friends like Steve Emblom.

“I’m speaking so that I can encourage people there, to let them know they’re in my prayers,” said Zylka.

The Survivor Dinner reception begins at the Middle School Commons Friday at 4:30 p.m. with the dinner served at 5:30 p.m. A silent auction will be held in the Commons from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. There will be a cancer awareness booth located inside the front gate of Flyer Field from 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.

The 19th annual Morrison County Relay for Life opening ceremony begins at Flyer Field at 7 p.m. and the luminaria ceremony will be at 10 p.m.

The Relay is open to the public and all are welcome and encouraged to attend.