His Doctor Thought He Had a Benign Cyst—Then It Grew to the Size of a Baseball

Could Vietnam veteran Richard Danzer cheat death a second time?

Richard Danzer first cheated death in 1962. As a young American fighting in the Vietnam War, he was tasked with salvaging a ship that ran ashore on the island of Phú Quôc. Danzer and 10 fellow soldiers freed the vessel from the beach, but to save themselves, they needed to brave waves nearly four metres tall in a small rubber raft before North Vietnamese forces descended on them.

Danzer didn’t think they’d survive, but against all odds, they reached the ship and climbed aboard. “Every day since, I’ve thanked God,” he says. “And every day that I see sunshine is a good day.”

That attitude has helped Danzer navigate the choppy waters of aging. Now 79, he’s retired in Delray Beach, Florida, after a 50-year career working in sales and management in the paint industry. His wife has Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and he’s had plenty of health issues himself. In 2017, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. While treating that illness, his doctors discovered and excised a squamous-cell carcinoma on his nose—a common but aggressive form of skin cancer that appears as a crust and can spread to other parts of the body if not treated. Once he was declared cancer-free, he began attending regular appointments to make sure he stayed that way.

The lump

In the summer of 2018, Danzer noticed a small lump in the middle of his back. It wasn’t painful, but over the course of a few weeks, it grew large enough that he could no longer comfortably sleep on his back. When he reported it to his general practitioner, the doctor said it was most likely a cyst, perhaps a benign pocket of fatty tissue or an inflamed hair follicle—in other words, something to keep an eye on but not a cause for panic.

The supposed cyst continued to grow for six months. By December, it was eight centimetres wide—about the size of a baseball cut in half. That wasn’t all. A sizable dark red crust was also developing on Danzer’s leg, like a scab but without any inciting scrape. He asked his daughter, Cheryl, who’d moved in with him a few years before, to take a look at his leg and back. “We both agreed that I’d better get to the doctor,” he says.

Danzer’s GP referred him to a dermatologist, Dr. Brittany Smirnov, who in turn sent him to a specialist in nearby West Palm Beach who could perform Mohs surgery, an exacting technique to remove cancerous cells from skin. Danzer also asked Smirnov to check out the growth on his back.

The diagnosis

Immediately, Smirnov was certain it was not a cyst. There was no punctum, the small hole that’s typical on a cyst caused by a problematic follicle. And the growth was firm, like a rubber eraser, whereas cysts are usually soft and gelatinous, like pudding inside a water balloon. Nor did the lump have a foul smell, another telltale sign of a cyst that results from a buildup of hair-lubricating fluid under the skin. Plus, it had grown faster than most cysts would have.

After dismissing that diagnosis, Smirnov thought it might be a lipoma, a common and benign buildup of fat. She pushed the lump around with her fingers—lipomas shift easily under the skin with slight pressure—but the bulge stayed put. It seemed affixed to the back of Danzer’s rib cage.

Still puzzled, Smirnov asked Danzer about his general health. Had he lost weight? No, he said. Was he experiencing any new issues? Nothing new, he reported, but he did have a chronic dry cough he attributed to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for more than 40 years. That discovery flicked a switch in Smirnov’s brain. Skin abnormalities are occasionally a sign of lung cancer, a plausible diagnosis for a long-time smoker like Danzer. “One of the areas where lung cancers love to metastasize is on the chest wall,” says Smirnov.

Smirnov ordered a spiral CT scan of Danzer’s lungs. The results proved her suspicions were correct: he had stage four lung cancer, and cancerous cells had spread from his lungs to the tumour on his back. In all likelihood, Danzer’s medical team concluded, he had 18 months to live.

The treatment

“It was a shock. It didn’t immediately register,” he says. Then, when the news did start to sink in, he “put it in God’s hands.”

There was a slim chance that, with the right treatment, Danzer could cheat death again. He underwent chemotherapy and five rounds of CyberKnife treatments, in which a robotic arm zapped his tumour with targeted beams of radiation. Almost immediately, the lump on Danzer’s back started getting smaller.

“As the tumour on his back started shrinking, we knew his internal tumour was shrinking, too,” says Smirnov. “It was a really good barometer to tell us how well the cancer was responding to the treatment.”

Within two months, the growth was gone, leaving only a skin wound; with a topical solution, that healed within a few days. The chemo lasted several months, during which time Danzer often felt sick to his stomach and depleted of energy. His daughter fed, comforted and took care of him. “I don’t know where I would have been without her,” he says.

About a year after Danzer first visited Smirnov’s office, he was declared cancer-free yet again. In the summer of 2020—the season he wasn’t supposed to live long enough to see—he was back to enjoying retirement and spending time with his daughter, relieved to be alive and grateful to Smirnov for saving his life. “I’ve exceeded my check-out date by a year and a half now,” he says. “I figured, after Vietnam, I was on borrowed time anyway. This just came as another blessing.”

Next, find out 30 cancer symptoms you should never ignore.

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada