"I feel like I'm one of the luckiest people alive, because I had acute myeloid leukemia and I was not supposed to make it," says George Panas today.
Nine years ago, it was Panas' daughter Maria who first suspected that something was wrong. A physician's assistant, she was concerned that her father seemed unusually tired and was experiencing numbness in his left arm. Fearing a heart problem, she drove him to The Miriam Hospital to be examined. Testing revealed that his heart was fine, but found that he had acute myeloid leukemia.
Back in 2000 when George Panas was diagnosed, his type of leukemia had a poor prognosis. But despite the realistic assessments of his doctors, he says he knew he would beat it. Describing his initial reaction, he says he worried a little at first, and went through the "Why me?" in about an hour. From that point on, his thoughts and actions were based on the certitude that he would survive.
Panas fondly remembers a long-time friend, whom he credits with helping him at this crucial time in his life. Although his friend Russell had died several years earlier, Panas says he was the bravest man he ever knew, battling lymphoma for the 26 years Panas knew him and beating it time and time again. Panas says that he learned from his friend how to handle his disease.
Panas had to undergo chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant to treat the leukemia. The chemotherapy was done at The Miriam Hospital, where Fred Schiffman, MD oversaw his treatment. Panas says, "I spent a lot of time-128 days-at The Miriam Hospital. Every time, they took great care of me. I was very cynical about doctors and nurses…but the staff at The Miriam Hospital completely changed my attitude toward the medical profession. The doctors and nurses and everybody else there showed me that they do really care. They care about their patients and wanted to help people."
In consultation with Schiffman, doctors at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston performed the stem cell transplant. Panas was one of the first patients to undergo the experimental procedure, and he says that it couldn't have gone better. He was fortunate that his sister was a good match to donate the bone marrow stem cells. Since the procedure, Panas has donated marrow several times for research purposes, to explore why the procedure went especially well for him.
When speaking about the challenge of confronting such a serious illness, Panas recommends to others to keep your head up, keep your sense of humor, have faith, and go to a place where you can believe in the doctors. He also advises to always think you're going to make it, no matter what you're told. He says, "A positive outlook is one of the most important things you can have in the fight against this disease. If you're lucky and you have a staff of people taking care of you like I had, you'll be fine. Today your chances of beating this disease are really very good."
He goes on to describe the impact that the illness had on his life, which, despite the difficulties, was very positive. Panas elaborates, "Before I got sick, work was the most important thing in my life. I used to put in 90 to 100 hours a week at my restaurant. Now I try to live my life differently…my family, my friends, trips, the good things that I can enjoy in life, trying to help others, volunteering a little bit, all come before the restaurant. I don't suggest that anyone get leukemia, but what happened to me afterwards changed my life for the better. Now if my grandson has a soccer game, and someone calls with a problem, I say 'take care of the problem. I'm going to a soccer game.' That would never have happened before."
As he and his wife were preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, he gets uncharacteristically emotional, expressing deep gratitude not only for her unwavering support throughout his treatment, but also for all their years together when she cared for him and their children while he spent long hours running his business. Back then his time and energy were consumed with work. Today he says, "I go anyplace and do anything she tells me, because I figure I owe her. We're on our way to Florida tomorrow, we've done a lot of traveling and we're planning a trip to Greece next year. We intend every year on our anniversary to travel someplace in the world. There are a lot of places we haven't been. I'm very thankful that I had a woman who stuck by me, not only during the sickness, but all those years. Hopefully, the best years are yet to come."
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