Man survives cancer three times (w/video)

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

July 3, 2014 at 2:03 a.m.

YOAKUM - Larry Zaruba, 59, a soft-spoken, retired teacher of auto mechanics at Yoakum High School, has survived three battles with cancer during the past decade.

After smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes most days for 25 years, Zaruba quit cold turkey at the age of 41.

"My doctor asked me if I wanted to walk my daughter down the aisle," Zaruba said. "She's our one and only, and she's made us proud."

Zaruba beat the smoking habit, but he did not avoid the onset of soft palate cancer, which was followed by lung and vocal chord cancers.

"Cancer is not a death sentence," said Larry's wife of 37 years, Dianne Zaruba, 58. "Larry is proof that it's not."

Cancer strikes

In 2003, Zaruba felt shooting pains in his right ear, accompanied by constant sinus drainage. A biopsy of his uvula, the muscle that dangles at the back of the throat, revealed stage 3 soft palate cancer.

"Smokers can retain damage quite a while - several decades," said Dr. William Morrison, professor of radiation oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "But there's always a benefit to quitting and the sooner, the better."

Dianne Zaruba drove her husband to MD Anderson Cancer Center, where Morrison and Dr. Eduardo Diaz began treatment.

Zaruba had proton therapy, an advanced radiation treatment, five days a week for six weeks. Morrison placed a block over Zaruba's vocal chords with an opening for the radiation beam.

"Dr. Morrison is quiet, particular, intense and a perfectionist," Dianne Zaruba said. "He's a lifesaver and a genius."

The field of radiation oncology became very complex when the treatment was computerized in 2000, Morrison said. The proton therapy is superior because it spares more of the surrounding normal tissue than standard radiation therapy.

Intensity modulated proton therapy, or IMPT, is offered exclusively at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Doctors deliver protons by focusing a narrow proton beam that essentially "paints" the tumor layer by layer with doses of radiation, according to the cancer center's website.

Side effects such as nausea, damage to salivary glands and endocrine disorders are reduced with proton therapy.

The rate for treating soft palate cancer successfully at the Houston cancer center is 90 percent, Morrison said. For smokers, the rate is slightly lower. The rate of recurrence is about 15 percent.

Lung cancer battle

In 2007, Zaruba's weight dropped, and he began coughing up blood. The diagnosis was stage 2 lung cancer.

"That was the scariest diagnosis, but we had the best thoracic surgeon," Dianne Zaruba said. "He said, 'We're going to get this.'"

After a three-month regimen of chemotherapy, Dr. Ara Vaporciyan, professor of surgery in the department of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center, surgically removed the lower half of Zaruba's right lung, which contained a tumor the size of a large lemon.

Vaporciyan also removed the sack around Zaruba's heart and a portion of his diaphragm because the tumor abutted both. He reconstructed them from Gore-Tex, a fabric membrane used for medical applications.

The final pathology report confirmed the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes.

Patients with stage 2 lung cancer who have their tumors removed surgically have a 40 to 50 percent chance of living five years after the surgery, Vaporciyan said. When the cancer recurs, it is typically within two to three years of surgery. Patients usually remain cancer-free after five years.

The chance that cancer will strike lung cancer patients again accrues 2 percent each year - 1 percent for recurrence in the lung and 1 percent for recurrence somewhere new, Vaporciyan said.

Vocal chord cancer

Zaruba remained cancer-free until 2013, when his voice became hoarse, and swallowing became difficult.

Morrison, Diaz and Dr. Merrill Kies treated Zaruba's vocal chord cancer with 34 proton beam radiation treatments. However, the process was complicated by Zaruba's previous soft palate cancer.

"Too much exposure is dangerous," Morrison said. "A specialized treatment was designed for his unique situation."

MD Anderson Cancer Center successfully treats 80 percent of patients with vocal chord cancer with a recurrence rate of 20 percent, Morrison said.

Life without cancer

"This is miracle number three, and we're done with cancer," Dianne Zaruba said.

Larry Zaruba started smoking when he was young because he thought it was cool. The casual puffing gradually grew into serious chain-smoking.

Since he has quit, Zaruba has felt better and has breathed clearer, despite the cancer. His senses of taste and smell have also improved.

"You can't take it for granted; life is too short," Larry Zaruba said. "You've got to take care of yourself."

Summer Patton, 32, the Zarubas' daughter, said her father's stoic Czech roots never allowed him to show much emotion. The cancer has changed that, though. The three-time cancer survivor has never been more in touch with his feelings, Patton said. She and her husband, Douglas Patton, 33, of Boerne, have two children - Noah, 4, and Brynna, 2.

Communities have rallied behind the Zarubas during the past decade. Partners Chevrolet in Cuero, where Larry Zaruba worked after his retirement from teaching, paid 60 percent of his salary for three months after he became too sick to work. To help defray medical expenses, Dianne Zaruba's co-workers at the Texas Department of Transportation in Yoakum hosted a golf tournament, and Holy Cross Lutheran Church conducted a benefit.

"It's nice to have people you can depend on," Dianne Zaruba said.

On April 23, 2005, Larry Zaruba walked his daughter down the aisle - exactly 28 years to the day after he and his wife married.

"Those pictures make me cry," Summer Patton said. "He looked unhealthy; he had been through so much, but he was there."



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